Grand Forks' Augustana Lutheran Church to celebrate 125th anniversary

The idea of organizing a Swedish Lutheran church began with a meeting of three men: O.G. Wallin, C.A. Setterstrand and Dr. A.A. Westeen

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The Rev. Jo Gast, pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church, talks about the church's longevity in the near north neighborhood of downtown Grand Forks as the church approaches its 125th anniversary celebration this coming weekend.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – In 1896, three men gathered to discuss the organization of what eventually became Augustana Lutheran Church. At one point during the Great Depression, the church had just 27 cents on hand. Years later, it survived the devastating Flood of 1997.

The church – along with society as a whole – has witnessed and weathered all manner of changes and challenges over the course of 125 years, but its members have remained true to Augustana’s core mission, the church's pastor said.

Sunday, Augustana Lutheran Church — at 520 University Avenue in Grand Forks — will celebrate its 125th anniversary. The celebration will feature a 9 a.m. get-together with muffins, juice and coffee and 10 a.m. worship service, followed by a lunch and short program, said Pastor Jo Gast, who has served as the church’s spiritual leader for seven years.

Asked how the church has made it to this milestone anniversary, Gast said, “Strong coffee,” with a chuckle. Then, more seriously, “One thing I have found out about this church – if I get this story straight – is that after the Flood of ‘97, they were encouraged to pick up and move south of town.”

Members of the congregation decided the church should stay put, that their mission was tied to the city’s near north side.


“This church is very neighborhood-oriented,” Gast said, and its members are concerned with the question of “how can we walk alongside our neighbors.”

That commitment was evident in the decision to remain in place and is expressed in “other small little ways,” she said.

“We’re a downtown church. And if you come here on a Sunday, you’re not a visitor, you’re a person,” she said. “It’s wonderful; it’s a good place.”

“We’ve had some students who’ve come on Rally Sunday and the next week were teaching Sunday School, because they said ‘hello’ to the wrong person,” Gast said with a laugh.

About 80 people attend Sunday services in person regularly, she said, and “we have a nice online presence too.”

She credits Lee Smith, a church member, for managing the “very good quality” technical aspects for congregation members who worship online. Services are live-streamed and can be accessed via the church’s Facebook page and website.


Moments in history

In 1896, three men — O.G. Wallin, C.A. Setterstrand and Dr. A.A. Westeen — gathered to discuss the organization of a Swedish Lutheran church in Grand Forks, according to the church’s history. On Oct. 23, 1887, the church was officially organized and a constitution was adopted by 52 charter members. The earliest worship services and meetings were held at Hauge Norwegian Lutheran Church on Walnut Street and Scandia Hall on Kittson Avenue.


The church’s first name was Gustavus Adolphus Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Congregation.

By 1899, the congregation had grown to 122 members and, that same year, the first church building was built, for $2,000, on the corner of Alpha Avenue (now First Avenue) and North Sixth Street. In 1908, a parsonage was built at 18 N. Sixth St. In 1931, the church was renamed Augustana Lutheran Church.


The history reveals the formation and activities of the Ladies Aid Society, circles and the Men’s Club, as well as a “mortgage burning celebration” in 1918 and installation of a pipe organ in 1920. In 1922, morning worship services were conducted in English and evening services in Swedish.

In the early years of the Great Depression, repairs were few and salaries were partially unpaid. In 1935, the history notes: “Still in National Depression – 27 cents on hand according to Treasurer’s report.”


In 1955, the congregation built a new church at 520 University Ave. The first service was held May 1, 1955.

In 1969, Ethel Booty became the first woman to serve on the church council.


On a wall in the hallway of the church’s second floor is a rainbow of children’s handprints, each band a different color and each print labeled with the child’s name and grade in school, to commemorate the Flood of ‘97.

Historical images

Visual reminders of Augustana’s history – as well as Christian history – are evident throughout the building.


The statue of Jesus, which graced the altar of the first church building, was placed in the sanctuary of the new church. The statue was restored by David Hetland Studios in 2002.

A set of two, three-branched candelabra that were used in the old church are now used in the social room. On display in the narthex are artifacts that reflect the Swedish heritage, including a bridal crown, called a brudakrona.


Augustana Lutheran Church has the largest single-themed stained glass window in North Dakota, according to the church’s history. Titled “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” the window is composed of 630 pieces of cut glass and required 249 hours of labor. The Reverend Stephen Streed, who served as pastor from 1979 to 1990, created the window over a period of one-and-a-half years.

The sparrow is a common bird that Christ refers to in Matthew 10:31 when He tells his followers, “Do not fear, therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows.”

‘Storied people of faith’

Augustana is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, one of the largest Christian denominations in the U.S.

“The ELCA is very good in terms of talking about faith, (in the context of) we’re a storied people of faith,” Gast said. “The Bible is God’s love story for us. And we all have a part in that story. It’s up to us to find a space for others to tell their stories, and how we meet Jesus in the midst of it.”

The pastor is looking forward to Sunday when the congregation pauses to reflect on the moment when their story began, 125 years ago.

“It’ll be a good day,” she said.

Well, as everyone knows, summer seems so fleeting here around Grand Forks. We love it. We hate to leave it behind.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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