Community rallies together to save Barrett church
By Carol Stender
It might be all about location when talking real estate, but, for the Ronhovde family of Barrett, it’s all about special connections, especially when talking about Jade Ronhovde’s baptism.
Jade, the daughter of Mitch and Britney, is the fifth generation to be baptized at Immanuel Lutheran Church of rural Barrett. Her great-great-great grandfather, Mons, was among the Norwegian immigrants who built and organized the church in 1872.
And so began the generations of Ronhovdes to be baptized there. Mons’ son, Anton, was baptized there on May 29, 1892; His son, Merton, on Nov. 9, 1919; and his son, Todd, on March 22, 1959. Mitch was baptized at Immanuel on Aug. 28, 1988 and now, Jade, on Sept. 19, 2020.
Even though the church closed in 1998, it remained an active site with weddings, funerals, sing-a-longs, reunions, historical cemetery walks and, yes, baptisms taking place. It was even the site for several scenes in the Redeemer’s Song movie, He Leadeth Me, in 2003.
But the future of the church structure a year ago didn’t look good. The old church, 148 years old, was showing its age.
Immanuel was not heated during the winter, and Minnesota’s harsh climate was taking its toll on the foundation. The foundation heaved with frost and each year it cracked a bit more. Those associated with the church were told the building wouldn’t last another year.
General upkeep, electricity and insurance had been paid by a singing group - The Leraas Family Singers - formed shortly after the church’s closing. The group, founded by Byron Bartz and Orlo Thompson, raised money through sing-a-longs held at the church during the summer. Original members including Bonnie Leraas, Lynette Leraas Moen, Karen Marie Block and Claremont Anderson are descendants of Ole Leraas, who with Mons Ronhovde and other Norwegian immigrants, started the church. Others joined the singing group through the years including Judy Hams, Linda Leraas Ray and Neal Nelson.
The group was active for 20 years and through donations paid for painting and a metal roof for the structure.
But they hadn’t performed for several years, and action on the church was needed immediately.
“We were told that the building would not last another year,” wrote Linda Leraas Ray in a story about the church. “It was time to take action.”
The church’s cemetery board, formed in 1970, however, was responsible for the cemetery and grounds, not the church building. Its current members, Mitch Clow, Kay Robison, Leon Johnson, Terry Lien and Bob Shervey, have worked to keep the grounds in shape and added a monument with the church’s picture, noting the church’s founding and closing. Near it is a granite bench in memory of Merton and his son, Mitch’s uncle, Clyde.
Ray joined with others to form an Immanuel Lutheran Church Association. The association rents the building from the cemetery board and is responsible for the church’s care.
The board, made up of Linda Leraas Ray as president, Karen Marie Block as secretary/treasurer and Bonnie Leraas, Orlo Thompson and Lee Ronhovde as board members, spearheaded five fundraisers. Through five fundraisers and awareness raised on Facebook and newspaper articles, the board raised over $40,000 in its first two months.
Initial funds helped the group to shore up the building with cribbing and metal beams through the winter thanks to work by Neil Anderson Building Movers. Neil also had a connection to the area. He hails from Kensington and attended West Central Area High School.
By the spring of 2020, Neil and his crew began excavating the old foundation. Removal started April 7, but there was too much frost to continue. They were able to dig an opening into the church on the south side and removed the old back basement entrance and the chimney. The task was resumed in early May. Overseeing the construction part was Leon Johnson, who volunteered to be general contractor. His family has also been connected to Immanuel.
Jade’s Grandpa Todd, her great-uncle Lee and father, Mitch, hauled out some of the clay and brought other dirt in for landscaping.
By fall the foundation was secured, but the work is ongoing. There’s still painting, cleaning and refurbishing a few of the stained glass windows in need of care.
“It’s a pretty church,” Mitch said. “I am glad for the effort being put in to save it. It’s really been a lot of effort by people.”
Mitch was a young boy when the church closed. He remembers that ceremony and has fond memories of sitting with his family during church services and of the basement where the church dinners took place.
Now he looks forward to more memories and connections through Jade’s baptism.
It was his idea to have the ceremony there.
“Yes, it was kind of a sentimental thing,” he said. “The church meant a lot to Grandpa Merton. I thought it would be neat if my daughter could be baptized there, as well.”
And that day, September 19, was filled with more connections for the family as Mitch’s sister and brother-in-law, DeLaine and Dave Schmidt, were sponsors for Jade during a service officiated by Pastor Eliza Johnson.
Standing tall and strong through it all was Immanuel Lutheran Church.