Sacred Heart church says goodbye after 128 years

It’s understandable that Phil Smith will likely have a hard sitting through Our Saviors/Opdal Lutheran Church’s final service.

After all, Smith was baptized and confirmed in the 128-year-old church eight miles southeast of Sacred Heart that is soon closing for good. After a final Easter service on April 21, a final farewell service is scheduled for June 9.

“It’s difficult to think about,” he said. “It has a sense of sadness to me and others.”

But even harder has been the historical value the church has held in the Smith family for six generations, beginning with his great-great- grandparents and concluding with he and wife Robin’s four daughters – Heather, Heidi, Sarah and Sally – all having also been baptized and confirmed there.

Camille Smith, Phil’s mother, was the full-time organist at the church for 50 years.

“I filled in as a pinch-hitter when needed after that, too,” laughed Camille, who was also baptized and confirmed in the church.

Camille takes a philosophical approach to the closing of the longtime church.

“It’s bittersweet that it’s closing,” she added. “I’m thankful for all the years we’ve had there, but it’s a sign of the times. Now we look to the future. A church is more than a building. That’s how life is. It’s always changing. All the good memories there outweigh that it’s closing.”

The church was built in 1891 and ready for Christmas Eve service despite not yet having pews and fixtures. Many of the chapter members were from Opdal (Uval) Norway, and the new church was named after their native church.

Organized religious activity in that area actually began in 1868 with the beginnings of Our Saviors Lutheran Church four miles north of the newly-established village of Sacred Heart. Opdal Lutheran church was constructed years later due to the need for a place of worship from those people south of Sacred Heart.

Our Saviors/Opdal Lutheran Church will hold its final service in June. The church is located near Sacred Heart, Minnesota. Photo by Scott Thoma

Opdal Church officially opened for service in 1892 under the name Opdal Norwegian Evangelical Church; with approximately 200 charter members that first year. Rev. Johannes E. Bergh served as the original pastor. Opdal then became affiliated with Our Saviors that same year. The two places of worship later took on the same title – Our Saviors/Opdal Lutheran Church – and continued to be sister parishes until the end of 2018.

Currently, there are less than a dozen members attending service each week at the original Opdal Church south of Sacred Heart.

“One Sunday service not too long ago there were only three people there,” Camille said.

“And at one summer service we had no one show up,” added Phil, a member of the Opdal Church Council.

There are approximately 70 current members in the Opdal church, although many are inactive members. There are around 30 voting members.

And it is because of that declining number that the six-member council had no choice but to unanimously vote for the church to be shut down. The church’s voting members then voted 17-0 in favor of shutting it down.

“Opdal contracted the services of Rev. Dale Svendsen for Opdal’s remaining church services,” said Sonja Thune, the Director of the Sacred Heart Museum. “The closing of Opdal has been brought up several times in past years; as early as the 1980s when giving decreased after the church received several large bequests.”

Rev. Sevendsen has served as pastor at both Our Savior/Opdal Lutheran Churches since 2005, holding early Sunday morning service at one church and late morning Sunday service at the other each week.

As with many small communities in recent decades, declining populations are the culprit of businesses, schools and churches being forced to shut down.

“I couldn’t sleep one night after I learned the church would be closing,” Phil Smith said. “So I did some research and found out that Renville County (where the church is located) had a population of 23,000-24,000 people up until the 1980s. Now it’s only around 14,000. That’s 60 percent less than it was 30 or so years ago.”

Another key decision in deciding to close the church was there would not be enough funds left for perpetual care of the cemetery, Thune noted.

The farewell service on June 9 will begin with coffee and a chance to reminisce and share memories, followed by the final church service.

“There will also be a special display on Opdal history,” Thune said.   

After the closing, most of the current church members are planning to attend service at the sister church north of Sacred Heart.

Currently, the Opdal council is seeking a non-profit organization to take over the church and the separate nearby chapel; the latter which was built for social gatherings in 1913. The council is also weighing other options.

“It’s a beautiful church and it’s in good shape,” said Phil Smith. “It has a new steel roof and it’s been recently sided. That’s what makes it so difficult to see it close; it’s not run down at all. But if we didn’t close, we were afraid we wouldn’t have any funds left to transfer to the Cemetery Association. And we owe it to ancestors to help with that.”