Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Morris, Illinois
On July 6th, 1880, several men and women met in the home of Susan Armbuster and organized “The Scandinavian Lutheran Church of Morris, Grundy County, Illinois.” Those present were: Mr. and Mrs. A.F. Peterson, Mr. and Mrs. N.P. Johnson, Mr. John Johnson, Mrs. Annie Syvertson, Lizzie Johnson, Louise Carlson, Lotta Carlson, Susan Armbuster, and Mr. and Mrs. Swen Knutson. The first pastor to serve this newly organized congregation was B.T. Strand, who was pastor at a nearby Hauge Congregation. During these early years there was no church building, no set budget, and expenses were paid from Sunday offerings that amounted to less than $2.00.
In the fall of 1883 Rev. N.G. Nilson replaced Pastor Strand. Due to congregational growth it was deemed necessary to have their own church building. On September 6, 1884 the congregation purchased the church and an adjoining house from the German Congregation for $1,800.
In 1887, the congregation applied for membership in “The Conference.” In 1890 they hired a salaried choir director. In 1893 Rev. N.G. Nilson resigned. the congregation was served by nearby pastors. On June 28, 1893, Rev. Torlief Aarrestad was called jointly with the Hauge congregation and was installed as pastor in Morris on July 9. His salary was $300 per year plus Christmas and Easter offerings.
The congregation continued to grow, thus requiring a new and larger building. Work on the new building began in the summer of 1895 and was completed in the spring of 1896. On April 12, 1896, the new church building, located at the present site of Bethlehem, was dedicated by the Rev. G. Hoyme, President of the United Norwegian Lutheran Synod.
Change and Growth
On June 15, 1902, the Scandinavian Lutheran Church called a special meeting for the purpose of incorporation under a new name. The name was changed to: Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church of Morris, Illinois. In 1907, a new pipe organ was purchased at a cost of $1,700. Tragedy struck on the afternoon of Holy Thursday, April 16, 1908, when the church was destroyed by a fire. With remarkable faith and courage the people set out to rebuild the church. In 1913 new art glass windows were installed.
Pastor Aarrestad died suddenly on May 24, 1927. He served at Bethlehem for 34 years. On June 24, 1929 Rev. Clarence M. Hanson (age 26) was installed. He served at Bethlehem for 9 years until he resigned and moved to another parish. Pastor Abrahamson was installed on January 22, 1939. During his ministry the congregation realized they needed a larger building. A building fund was started in preparation for such a project. Also during this time the need for visitations increased. The Rev. Ben. C. Qually was called as a visitation pastor (April 1, 1941). Pastor Abrahamson resigned in 1944. The Rev. N.W. Stoa of Parshall, N.D. was called and installed on March 19, 1944.
In October of 1948, a full time parish worker, Miss Phyllis Score, was called to help in the expanding work of the growing congregation. In 1951 the building fund totaled $117,000. On April 3, 1951 a meeting ws held and over 200 voting members decided to build a new church building. June 10, 1951 marked the last service in the old church building. Following the service a “ground breaking ceremony” for the new church was held. During the construction, the congregation met in Gould Park Hall and the Center School. Several local churches also allowed Bethlehem to use their building for meetings as needed.
The first service in the new church building was held on June 15, 1952. It was an ordination service. Robert Anderson and Luverne Runestad were ordained into the Holy Ministry. The new church building cost $275,000.
Pastor Leonard Hinderaker was installed on August 28, 1955 to replace Rev. Stoa who had a accepted a call from Denny Park Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington. Pastor Voeks was installed as Associate Pastor on August 10, 1958.
Bethlehem joined the American Lutheran Church on January 1, 1960. Of that same year the congregation voted to build an Education Unit at a cost of $155,000. It was completed and dedicated in September 1961.
Into the 21st Century
In 1967, Rev. Norval R. Wigtil was installed as Associate Pastor on January 22nd. He succeeded Pastor Hinderaker as Senior Pastor on September 29, 1968. In 1971 construction began for a new organ. it was used for the first time on Palm Sunday 1973. It was purchased for $38,975, all of which came from special donations from the congregation.
On September 8, 1985 Rev. John Skeie was installed as Senior Pastor. He served the congregation until 1991. Pastor Scott Gray served the congregation from 1992-94. From 1994 until April 1995 the Rev. Harold T. Masted served on an interim basis.
On April 1995 pastor Steven Lombardo was installed as Senior Pastor. He served for ten years until he resigned to accept a call to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Gifford, Illinois. Pastor David Skordahl served as Interim Pastor from 2007-2009. On June 21, 2009 Patrick Lohse was installed as Pastor of Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church.