By Alan Sorensen
Senior Pastor Walter Kirkegaard gave his last sermon Sept. 24, nine years after assuming the position. Nearly four months later, Associate Pastor Dorthy Nielsen is taking her leave of the First Lutheran Church in Havre, too.
A special open house is scheduled for 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. this Sunday in the church social hall for Nielsen and parishioners and community members to say their goodbyes. Nielsen's last service will be Sunday, Jan. 14.
While it could be some time before either pastor is replaced, Nielsen has no misgivings about the church's future.
"There are talented people in this congregation who can preach and lead worship and give pastoral care," Nielsen said, "and First Lutheran will be fine until a new senior pastor arrives.
"This is a strong congregation with a lot of talent and skill and a lot of commitment to the gospel."
Nielsen said she felt the call to move on last fall.
"Knowing that Pastor Walt would be leaving and knowing God wasn't calling me to be senior pastor at this church," she said. "I made myself available for call in the Pacific Northwest and Montana."
Nielsen has accepted a position with a Lutheran congregation in The Dalles, Ore.
"I interviewed at The Dalles and just knew in my heart of hearts that I was meant to be there and it was mutual," she said. "I feel fortunate that this is the second time that has happened."
The first was her call to Havre shortly after completing seminary at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif. Nielsen, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, said Pacific Lutheran has been around for nearly 50 years and is part of the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of seminariers of differing denominations in Berkeley.
"The nice thing about GTU is that it's an ecumenical setting," Nielsen said.
Nielsen's role as one of two women pastors in Havre during much of her 4 years at the city's largest Protestant church provided her with opportunities beyond those offered to men in the pulpit. The other woman pastor was Kathy Young, who ministered at Van Orsdel United Methodist Church and is now in Great Falls.
"I feel like I've had certain inroads, opportunities even, as a clergy woman to impact people's lives and to be in organizations in the community, as well," Nielsen said.
Among her most memorable activities in Havre were her membership in the women's health group and her service on the Mental Health Awareness Council. During her time on the council, the group introduced QPR, a suicide prevention and awareness program, to Havre and the Hi-Line.
Nielsen said that coming from a warm and inviting climate to Havre was a shock to her system. She acknowledged that the first year and a half were tough, but her acquisition three years ago of Satin, a retired sled dog from Alaska, was a blessing.
"She has helped me appreciate the winters in Montana," Nielsen said.
Nielsen thought that when she left Havre she would be returning to the city. Not so.
Nielsen's new home town will be a little larger than Havre (about 15,000) and not so cold. Her new congregation is estimated at about 400 people compared to the 1,000 at First Lutheran in Havre.
"The small town flavor has worked on me, and I've enjoyed knowing my neighbors," Nielsen said. "There are a lot of good people here."
Located in the Columbia River Gorge about 83 miles east of Portland, Ore., The Dalles does bear one striking similarity to Havre and the Hi-Line Interstate 84 is peppered throughout that area with signs warning motorists of high winds.
"Everyone has been so kind and understanding about my leaving," she said. "The response in the congregation has been very generous and compassionate. When you have a congregation like that, they're capable of carrying on until another pastor arrives.
"Pastor Walter Kirkegaard brought a lot of healing to this congregation at a time of difficulty. I hope that I contributed to that strength so they're in a place where they can carry on."
Nielsen's one hope is that the next pastor will be welcomed into the community and people's lives more quickly than she was.
"Strangers don't have the roots here and it's really hard to become part of the community," she said. "It's a challenging thing to be a stranger here. A warm, friendly face and an invitation to dinner can mean so much."
Nielsen said there were several things about Havre that she will miss besides the people and her congregation.
"I'm going to miss the lilacs blooming and watching the geese practice for their trips and seeing them when they come back and the Northern Lights and the sparkle of the snow," she said.
Her departure comes just weeks before another of Havre's favorite events, an event for which she has clearly unmixed feelings.
"Oh, darn, I'm going to miss the lutefisk dinner ha, ha."