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Lake Eunice Evangelical Free Church celebrates 125 years: Festivities to span across three days, June 22-24

A photo taken at Lake Eunice Evangelical Free Church in its earlier days, probably sometime during the 1920s to 1940s. Submitted photo1 / 6
Pastor Dale Robins, at the church earlier this week, has served as pastor at Lake Eunice since 2000. Marie Johnson / Tribune2 / 6
John Halstedt, a Swedish settler and the first pastor of the church. Lake Eunice Evangelical Free Church was originally registered in 1893 as the Swedish Mission Church of Christ, a non-denominational church that held all services and kept all records in Swedish. Submitted photo3 / 6
The Lake Eunice Evangelical Free Church, as it stands today. Across the road from the church is its cemetery, which was the original location of the church before it was moved downhill on logs in October 1943. Tribune File Photo4 / 6
The 2018 congregation of Lake Eunice Evangelical Free Church. Submitted photo5 / 6
A special banner bearing the theme for the 125th Anniversary Celebration was created for the occasion. Marie Johnson / Tribune6 / 6

In 1893, on a little Swedish settlement about 10 miles southwest of Detroit Lakes, the church that is known today as Lake Eunice Evangelical Free Church was born.

Back then, it had a different name—the Swedish Mission Church of Christ. It started as a non-denominational church that held services in Swedish, and kept all its written records in Swedish, too.

The simple one-room structure was built on land donated by the church's first pastor, John Halstedt. A livery barn was built across the road to the north to provide shelter for horses during church services.

Karen Kluenenberg, an elder member of the church who has been there longer than any other active member there today, is a descendant of one of those first Swedish families.

"My great-grandpa was one of the first settlers that got this church started," she said. "It's been a long time."

Yes, it has. The church turns 125 years old this year. The milestone will be celebrated with three days of special events this Friday through Sunday, June 22-24.

Kluenenberg is one of the key organizers of the celebration, and she said a big highlight will be the return of many former church leaders and members. It'll basically be a big reunion of people who haven't seen each other for a long time—in some cases, decades, she said.

"We've got people coming from as far away as California, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and the Cities," she said. "People are calling in, and they're excited."

Events will include a catered dinner, gospel concert, potluck, ice cream social and special 125th Anniversary Program, among other things. The Sunday program will feature songs and stories by past and present church members and missionaries, with plenty of memories shared.

"There are a lot of people coming back," said Kluenenberg.

Dale Robins, the church's pastor, said he's guessing about 150 to 200 people will show up for the celebration, and likely even more by Sunday as word spreads. All events are open to the public.

To prepare for the big weekend, Robins said, "I'm going to put down every chair we can."

Preparations for the celebration actually began a year ago, with a planning committee setting the date and sending out "Save the Date" cards to active and former members of the church.

They also came up with a theme for the event, "Rooted in Christ, Branching Out, Bearing Fruit," and had a special banner made up with this theme for the occasion.

A Cookbook Committee also got together, creating and selling 125th Anniversary Cookbooks. Featuring recipes from church members, the books have been on sale at the church since Christmas and will be sold throughout the celebration.

"We've been pretty excited for the whole event," said Robins.

Considering the age of the church, he added, "We're a very active church. We have a lot of different things going on."

Every year, church members plan and host several fun events, such as a Valentine Banquet, Harvest Festival, Church Picnic and Family Fun Night. The church has an active mission committee, youth group, men's and women's groups, and Bible Study groups.

Worship services are held every Sunday at 10 a.m., preceded by Sunday School at 9 a.m. during the school year. The church also provides Sunday morning services at Sunnyside Care Center in Lake Park every 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month at 9 a.m.

The church's membership today consists of between 80 and 100 regular attendees. They're not all just Swedes anymore, either. Though some of those original family members remain (such as Kluenenberg), today's membership is a more diverse mix of heritages, ages and lifestyles.

"There's a very strong family-type atmosphere," said Robins of the church today. "We're very welcoming to new people coming in. Everybody knows everybody here, or gets to know everybody."

He added, "'You're only a guest the first time you come; after that, you're part of a family'—that's an old saying, but it's true here, too."

More about the church's history

In the early years of the original Swedish church, services were often led by traveling Evangelists, and by 1914 a reverend associated with the Evangelical Free Church was serving as a regular pastor. The congregation soon voted to continue the association, and by the late 1920s was hiring ministers directly from the Evangelical Free Church Association.

Around this same time, the church began offering services in English every other Sunday—a move that not all members appreciated, and some ended up leaving the church because of it.

Since there was no electricity, services were held by the light of kerosene and aladdin lamps, and the building was heated by wood provided by parishioners. Some services, prayer meetings, youth meetings and family nights were held in people's homes.

Things changed quite a bit in 1943 when the church was moved across the road from its old location to the site where it still stands today. (The old location is now the site of the church's cemetery.) Kluenenberg said parishioners were tired of the strong winds at the church's old location on top of a hill, and believed it would be less windy downhill. The move (accomplished by rolling the structure across the road on big logs) provided an opportunity for other upgrades to the building, like a full basement and new entryway, as well as electricity.

By the 1950s, the church's name had been changed to Lake Eunice Evangelical Free Church, and an oil burner eliminated the need for wood burning; no more did a fire need to be started on Saturday nights to warm the church for Sunday School in the mornings. Running water and indoor bathrooms were added in the late '70s.

Though the church has always been beloved for its rural, close-knit, family-friendly atmosphere and strong spiritual and community ties, it has experienced its share of hard times. During the Depression, the reverend at the time made do with a meager salary of about 25 to 50 cents a week—whatever was taken in during evening services, and it was a financially rough time for all.

The church weathered that era, but went through a rough patch again starting around the mid-1970s. For a couple of winters, the church actually closed down. Services then were all held at the Detroit Lakes Free Church, where then-Reverend Melvin Lundeen also served.

Lake Eunice reopened and stayed open in the spring of 1975, but experienced a number of difficult years. By the early '80s, the church's membership had dwindled down to about a dozen devotees.

Under the tireless leadership of Reverend Steve Cook, however, the church was rejuvenated, and an addition was put on to the church in the mid-'80s to accommodate its growth. For years thereafter, the church grew both spiritually and in numbers.

Lake Eunice Evangelical Free Church continues to thrive today; a friendly little church with a whole lot of history and high hopes for tomorrow.

--Information from the special publication, "Lake Eunice Evangelical Free Church 125th Anniversary Celebration, Commemorative Edition."


125th Anniversary Celebration Schedule of Events

Friday, June 22

• Catered dinner at the Cormorant Community Center, 6 p.m. social, 6:30 p.m. meal

Saturday, June 23

• The Beyond Blue Band of Fargo, N.D., gospel concert at the church at 7 p.m.

Sunday, June 24

• Worship service (with a special sermon by the District Superintendent) followed by a Potluck Lunch, 10 a.m.

• 125th Anniversary Program followed by an ice cream social, 1 p.m.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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