story by: angela brandt
page design by: stacy mantle
After nearly a century, the Faith Lutheran Church's bells will ring for the last time on Oct. 30.
The Box Elder church's doors will close due to low membership. The congregation has 12 members. Ten of the members, including the youngest, Rayna Johnson - who was baptized a year ago - met on Sunday for their regular services then retired to the basement for refreshments. Photos from the last 94 years lined the walls of the basement and were displayed in scrapbooks. The members recalled memories of their time in the church.
Faith Lutheran's circle group bake sales were a highlight. The congregation went through pictures of all the baked goods, which filled up about a dozen large tables, and people lined up at the door for first dibs. The sale has been a tradition since the 1950s. Earnings were donated to the Big Sandy Medical Center and other causes. The Rev. Jeff Stoopes said he didn't realize how popular it was until he arrived for the sale in his first year with the congregation and everything was gone. Rayna's mother, Jennifer Johnson, said a lot of people got their holiday treats from the church's sale.
”There will be a lot of disappointed people this winter,“ she said.
During winters past, before the church was renovated in 1966, Irma Solberg said she and her husband, Ordean, would have the services at their house when the church was too cold.
The Christmas program also was a favorite topic of conversation Sunday. Johnson said many congregation babies were chosen to portray baby Jesus. Beverly Grass, who joined the church in the late 1940s, said one of her favorite parts of the church was the Christmas Eve service, especially the young people singing. Beverly and her husband, Lionell, have had three children and six grandchildren baptized and confirmed at Faith Lutheran.
The largest family to belong to the church is the Freier family, with four generations of confirmed members.
The women's faces lit up when they talked about their quilting. They grabbed a few quilts and proudly displayed their creations. The quilting group met once a month. They each had a certain job within the quilting line. The end result would go to the Big Sandy Medical Center. Irma Solberg also made bibs for men's and women's group homes.
The congregation participated in Adopt A Highway from 1997-2003. Ordean Solberg joked that the sign still has them listed.
Stoopes, who started with the church in March 2003, said a special memory for him is Rayna's baptism, because that was his only one at Faith Lutheran Church.
Almost all of the church's pastors have come right out of the seminary, including the Rev. Russell Halaas, who was at the church in the 1950s. Halaas will be the guest speaker for the closing ceremony.
Members spoke of the church's history. The congregation started in 1911 at a meeting in the home of F.E. Urdahl. The Rev. A. Lunde of Great Falls, the church's first pastor, helped organize the Scandinavian Lutheran congregation, which used Norwegian and Swedish languages during services. Members were not sure when the services began in English.
The church building was built in 1917.
Lionell was baptized at the church soon after his birth in 1922. In 1928, the trustees were authorized to rent the church to be used as classrooms for public school. Lionell attended first grade in the church's basement. He said there was a wood stove in the front, so that's where he always wanted to sit.
In the fall of 1932, Lauren Keene and his family lived in the basement for one school term, because they couldn't find another place in Box Elder.
The name of the church was changed from Box Elder Lutheran Church to Faith Lutheran Church in about 1960. The new constitution of the American Lutheran Church was adopted at the same time.
The interior and exterior of the building were painted in preparation of the diamond anniversary in 1986, when there were 36 members.
Stained-glass windows in the church were donated about 15 years ago by members. The windows will be given back to the families who donated them.
Stoopes will continue to serve at Christ Lutheran Church in Big Sandy. The members of Faith Lutheran Church don't have set plans for the group in the future. Wade Bitz said he will miss the weekly meetings and extended family. He said he hopes the building will move on with another purpose.
”None of us want to see the church rot away,“ Wade Bitz said.
The building might be moved and used as a church in another location, but no plans have been finalized. Stoopes said he thinks moving the church would be a wonderful way for the building to continue with a new story elsewhere.
The members are working on a booklet for the final service, which will include the church's history, pictures and a listing of pastors.
On Oct. 30, the church will have a service at 8:30 a.m. and a final service at 2 p.m. The afternoon meeting will follow regular service order, but both the lesson text and the sermon will focus on the history of the church. Mary Stevens will accompany the hymns and special music. A reception in the basement will follow. A slide show of photos taken over the years will run before the service and at the reception. The Rev. Brad Ulgenes of First Lutheran Church in Havre will represent the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in a ceremony at the end of the service to officially decommission the congregation of Faith Lutheran Church.
People are asked to send notes of their favorite Faith Lutheran memories to Alvin Bitz at 27163 Road 120 South, Box Elder, MT 59521.