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Old churches find new life, new purpose

By Nancy Leasman

Elaine Dubel, current president of the Trinity board, points to where the decorative wooden piece came from the Trinity Lutheran Church . Photo by Nancy Leasman

Hundreds of thousands of Norwegians emigrated to Minnesota between 1851 and 1920. The city of Henning (in Ottertail County) and the city of Farwell (in Pope County) were two of the communities that welcomed these folks who sought opportunities in this area, to a land that somewhat resembled their homeland.

In 1898, while Minnesotans were embroiled in the efforts to end Spanish colonial rule during the Spanish-American War, and 400 members of the 15th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry were fighting off typhoid, residents of both Henning and Farwell were doing their best to muster the resources to build church homes.

The twin-spired Gothic Revival church was one of the first structures built in Henning. Huge stones were hauled to the site, cut to fit snugly to each other and stacked to form the foundation. The exterior was clad in bricks and the final touches were those unique wood shake covered steeples. A pressed tin ceiling was ordered to fit the interior space and stained glass allowed natural light to color the heart of the church. It was known as the Trinity Lutheran Church.

Meanwhile, the Farwell congregation had purchased a vacant schoolhouse south of the community and moved it into town to serve as their church. That structure served for nearly 15 years. In 1907 with a cost estimate of $2,557, the Farwell Norwegian Lutheran Church’s construction was initiated. Like the Henning church, this one also had a sturdy stone foundation but unlike the twin spires, this design was for an octagonal steeple. In later years, art deco stenciling decorated the interior. The actual building costs exceeded the estimate by $1,500. The total cost of just over $4,000 may be similar to that invested by the Henning community.

Neither church had plumbing or bathrooms. Outhouses served the parishioners at church as they did at home.

The Farwell church was the heart of this small community until 1991. It then remained empty and unused for 25 years. The church’s bell was taken down from the steeple when the church closed. The chime was removed and placed in the Farwell cemetery where many of the church’s founders are buried.

By 1967 three Henning area Lutheran communities merged forming the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and shortly after that sold the 1898 church building. It became St. Edward’s Catholic Church and served that parish until they built a new church in 2002. According to Elaine Dubel, current president of the Trinity board and granddaughter of one of the church’s first ministers, some of the stained glass windows and the bell were relocated and put to good use in the new St. Edward’s church in Henning.

The Trinity building went into private hands and eventually Otter Tail County acquired it as a tax-forfeited property. The Otter Tail County Historical Society thought the city of Henning might take over the property and in 2015 a non-profit, “Save the Trinity,” was formed. Some of the members of this group are descendants of the church’s founders.

In 2017, as the 110th anniversary of the Farwell church was approaching, Ted Irgens, the great-grandson of founders Johannes Stephanus and Emma Irgens, acquired the property and set about restoring it. His roots and love for the community go deep.

A panoramic interior view of the church in Henning. Photo by Dan Broten

Both church structures were in bad states of disrepair when their restoration projects were undertaken. Leaky roofs, water in the basements and accessibility issues were among the first considerations. Ted Irgens was a veteran of other restoration and renovation projects in the metro area and put his own funds into restoring the Farwell church. That project started with a new roof, new siding to replace rotten pieces, and window sills. The exterior was painted and many of the windows were restored with matching glass. The steeple, which had been leaning, was straightened and repaired.

Inside, the electrical service was rewired, the original fixtures were rewired and polished and the floors were refinished. When the cardboard tile was removed the original stenciling was revealed. The decorative details and altar pieces were cleaned and repainted by Gloria and Jack Pfeifer. All of the interior walls, ceilings and trim were repainted. A new furnace, air conditioning and the installation of a bathroom has completed the modernization of this century old structure.

Interior of the church in Farwell. Contributed photo

While the Farwell church is in private hands, the Henning church is in the hands of a non-profit organization now known as Trinity Center. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2019 which adds to the potential for getting grant funding for specific projects. Bake sales, garage sales, a rib fest and other fund raisers have paid for tuck pointing the brick exterior, painting, removing asbestos and the installation of new asphalt shingles. Vinyl plank flooring covers the open floor plan. A successful planning grant has generated 130 pages of construction plans for restoration of the bell tower and twin steeples.

Dan Broten, director of Henning’s Landmark Center, has been instrumental in writing grants for National Register listing and restoration projects for Trinity Center. He and Elaine Dubel both emphasize the need for bathrooms and a ramp.

Both spaces are being used by their respective communities for a variety of events and activities. Neither church is likely to go back to hosting regular Sunday services.

The Farwell church, since its renewal, has hosted weddings, baptisms, concerts, a Christmas hymn sing-along, art shows, reunions and parties.

Roof work being done on the Henning church. Photo by Dan Broten

Henning’s Trinity Center has also hosted choral and harp concerts, a princess tea, a father/daughter dance, quilting activities, Live Nativity in December, and Christmas in July when the space is transformed in holiday splendor.

“We would like to have more connections and events with the local school, too,” said Elaine Dubel.

Farwell is a small town with about 30 houses and an estimated population of 50. The post office is in the community center. There are no bars, no cafes, and no convenience stores. However, the restoration of the church was the first of other historical renewals including the addition of an old school and ongoing work on the gas station. Flowering crab apples and maple trees have been planted along the boulevards. Colorful gardens add vibrancy and emphasize the love that’s gone into this little town.

The Henning and Farwell church founders couldn’t see into the future far enough to imagine what would become of the structures they dreamed into reality. At 123 years and 114 years, respectively, these buildings will continue to enhance the lives of those who love, care for, and use them.

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