Bethesda celebrates 125 years

BUSINESS PROFILE: BETHESDA

Independent, faith-based non-profit has been serving the needs of seniors since 1897


BY SCOTT THOMA


What began with one man and three orphaned children in Lamberton, Minn., has blossomed into the largest non-profit rural aging services providers, including the sixth largest skilled nursing facility, in the state.

The newly constructed Bethesda North Pointe is located at 500 Peterson Parkway in New London. Contributed photo

Bethesda, based in Willmar, will be celebrating its 125th anniversary of the day it was fully incorporated as an organization on Sept. 29, 1897.


“Our mission touches around 1,000 lives a day,” said Michelle Haefner, chief executive officer at Bethesda. “It’s one of the few independent, not-for-profit, faith-based facilities in the state that has been in existence this long and hasn’t changed its philosophy or values. Our values and our reputation have survived the test of time. We’re very proud of that.”


Bethesda is continually growing to serve the needs of others together in faith, community, and life.


“This is one of the few times that there hasn’t been active construction going on somewhere within our family of services,” Caroline Chan, Bethesda Chief Development Officer, remarked in early June. “We are continually striving to meet the needs of the people we serve.”


To better serve the needs of neighboring communities, Bethesda opened Park View Village in Olivia in 2002 and, more recently, opened North Pointe in New London on Oct. 1, 2021, the inaugural kick-off to their yearlong celebration of their 125th anniversary.


The non-profit now includes a full family of services to serve the needs of older adults and others through their skilled nursing facility Bethesda Grand and Club Suites, home health agency Bethesda at Home, adult day wellness services Bethesda Day Break, assisted and independent living communities Sunrise Village, Centennial Square, Park View Village, Bethesda North Pointe, and community health and wellness in Willmar and New London through Club Bethesda and outpatient therapy centers. Among the recent construction projects at Bethesda in Willmar was a Wellness Center that includes a state-of-the-art exercise room and swimming pool that is open to members.


“Our mission to serve the needs of our neighbors has certainly grown over the generations, but one thing has stood the test of time, the overwhelming support and encouragement of our neighbors who choose to help amplify our mission and ministry through philanthropy with their support of our foundation,” said Chan. “Without our communities support we simply would not be who we are today. Each year, Bethesda’s Foundation seeks ways to support program expansion, growth of services, quality of life initiatives for clients, and capital improvements that would not otherwise be possible. Currently, its capital focus is to improve the quality of health for older adults in northern Kandiyohi County through the introduction of a warm-water therapy pool to the new Bethesda North Pointe campus in New London.”


Bethesda has approximately 500 employees, reflecting a diverse work force in a diverse community. Recent accolades for their remarkable service to others include its recent ranking as one of America’s best nursing homes by Newsweek magazine, and strong rankings for quality care by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.


Bethesda is governed by a volunteer board of directors that represent churches in Willmar, New London, Spicer, Atwater, Roseland, and Prinsburg, all small communities within a 15-mile radius of the facility. Currently, there are nine congregations represented on Bethesda’s 12-member board.


“It’s important that decisions made here are reflective of those we serve, and the best way we can make local decisions is through our local governing board,” said Roger Ahrenholz, current chairman of the board of directors at Bethesda. “We intentionally seek to expand our family of covenant relationships with area Christian congregations to remain an active representation of the neighbors we serve. Our structure is unique in today’s language of health care, and it is the key factor that has enabled our past and present success, and equips us to serve the needs of future generations.”


Compelling history

The Orphans Home in Lamberton was opened in 1897 by one man and three orphans. This photo was taken in the early 1900s as part of “Bethesda Homes Day.” Contributed photo

Following what Pastor Haggerness had established as a place for children in need of love, kindness, and care with the three children, Lutheran Orphan Asylum of Lamberton was organized on Sept. 29, 1897 by pastors, professors, and community members belonging to various churches. Each member was required to have a Christian belief.


Eight acres of land was purchased in Lamberton, and the building was completed and ready for occupancy by the following year. Pastor Jacob Mortenson was the first pastor of the orphanage, while Sister Mathilde Swanson served as matron of the Norwegian-Danish Conference congregations. According to records preserved by Bethesda, 24 or more children were cared for at the Lamberton orphanage.


Eventually, the need for care outgrew the facility, so with the help of Willmar congregations, leaders purchased land five miles north of Willmar where a large home was constructed that could accommodate as many as 50 children. The orphanage was then moved from Lamberton to Willmar in 1905, and renamed Bethesda Home during a meeting at the Eagle Lake Lutheran Church.


In 1909, it was decided that there was a need for senior care in the area, and a second building was built on the property. The building, which was called Bethesda Homes for the Aged, was completed and available for occupancy by 1910.


Against insurmountable odds such as the Great Depression and drought, money became tight, and the Bethesda Corporation made the difficult decision to close the Children’s Home in 1939 after more than 40 years of giving material and spiritual care to 211 children from around the country.


Bethesda administrators and board members place a great emphasis on its rich history, as evidenced by the fact that Haefner, Chan and a videographer traveled to San Diego recently to capture the story of a 97-year-old man, Milo A., who once lived as an orphan at Bethesda from 1928 until it closed in 1939, and is known to be the last living person to have lived at the orphanage.

Bethesda nurses from days gone by. Contributed photo

“We first heard from someone that there was a man still alive that was in the orphanage here,” said Chan. “With the help of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, we were able to track this man down through records, and also an interview he gave with the (Willmar) West Central Tribune about 10 years ago when he came back for a visit. We then called (Milo) and asked if we could come out and talk with him.”


“We felt this was an important part of our history, and we needed to get the story on video,” explained Haefner about the trip to California. “It was the last chance to preserve such an important part of our legacy story.”


One thing that made Milo difficult to track down initially was that he had changed his first and last name later in life; his surname changed to that of the matron of the orphanage because “I felt like she was my mother.” Milo was one of nine children who remained with the matron of the home at the time of closure, Alice Anderson.


“I think one of the greatest stories from that time that I have been proud to learn about during this time of reflection is that of Alice,” said Haefner. “Her commitment to those children, and to use her life as a single woman in the 1930s to serve the needs of others is remarkable. It truly reflects the type of compassion depicted by those who choose to serve others through Bethesda. Her heart of service was evident then, and I see it living on throughout our organization today, through the hearts and hands of those who choose to serve through our mission.”


The two buildings of the orphanage, Milo recalled, was on a 240-acre farm that was accompanied with an apple orchard and a large vegetable garden. He recalled waking up at 5 a.m. every morning to milk the cows.


“It was a wonderful Christian upbringing,” he noted. “I learned to love God, and learned a strong work ethic, which helped build the life I have today.”


Today, Bethesda remains an independent, non-profit, and Christian-based organization that continues to grow and adapt to the needs of the region it serves.


“By the grace and guidance of God,” Haefner said, “we are where we’re at -- ready to continue to serve the needs of our neighbors.”


Bethesda welcomes the community to join them for their Bethesda Legacy Day Celebration on Sept. 25, 2022, in Willmar, MN. Visit their website at www.BethesdaWillmar.org or follow them on Facebook at Bethesda Willmar for more information, or to learn about Bethesda’s history of a faith-forward tradition of care.


If you are interested in learning more about the care and services provided by Bethesda, please reach out to their dedicated Welcome Center professionals who are committed to helping you navigate this next phase of life: (320) 214-5643 or welcome@bethesdawillmar.com.


Is it time for senior living? Check out Bethesda’s complimentary and confidential four-minute assessment “is it time for senior living?” at www.bethesdawillmar.org/assessment.


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