Ostmark Lutheran Church in Watkins has gone through interesting times. On June 23, the church will celebrate its 125th year.
The congregation was formed in 1894, 10 years after Swedish settlers arrived in Meeker County and surrounding areas. The congregation purchased two acres of land to build the church and have space for a cemetery. By 1895, the church was built and Rev. Norsen accepted a call to minister the spiritual needs of the settlers.
Andrea Leafblad, administrative assistant at Ostmark Lutheran Church and church member, said the church has a photo of its 1911 congregation the day before they tore it down to build a larger church.
“This is the last day they building would stand,” Leafblad said. “This church had served the congregation for 26 years. It had been built at a total cost of $177.08 with much of the building materials and labor being donated.”
Fire destroyed the church twice. The first devastating incident was on Jan. 12, 1912, when lightning struck and ravaged the church to pieces.
Leafblad said there is no picture of the second church as it only stood for five months.
“A third church was built in 1912, and this church was remodeled and added on to several times,” she said. “Then on April 1, 2001 it also burnt to the ground. The church we have today was built after this fire. It was completed in 2002 and dedicated on June 23, 2003.”
Gerry Moen, a descendant of the early Swedish settlers and the current president of Women of the ELCA, recalls the second fire.
“It was so horrible,” she said. “We came there that morning, it was so horrible (because) it had just all gone up in flames,” she said.
The church lost many valuables and significant artifacts, including candelabras and stained glass windows that dated back to early members of the church who donated in memory of someone, she said.
“Old family Bibles were lost in the fire,” she said. “Old collection plates that people put money in were lost. (We) lost (our) chimes… all our dishes, we had old-old dishes.”
As a result of the fire, the church’s big bell in the steeple fell down and cracked from the impact. Harland Johnson, a skilled welder and a friend of the church, volunteered to weld the bell back together, she said.
“So, we did save the bell,” she said. “And today (it) is sitting on the base of the bell tower.”
Immediately after the fire, the congregation met inside Kingston’s American Legion hall. There they came together to discuss and plan what to do next. They also used the hall for Sunday church service for about one month, she said.
Not long after, the congregation learned that a Lutheran church in Darwin had a bigger space, and they hosted Sunday service there for the next several months.
In December 2001, their new church was partially built, and the congregation couldn’t wait any longer, so they organized a Christmas Eve service. There were no pews, so people brought their own chairs. They put up a Christmas tree, lit candles and sang “Silent Night.”
“Oh, but that was so meaningful,” she said. “You just don’t know the thrill of it, (that) you could do that. It’s so meaningful. That God had given us all of this. (God) gave us the right people to help us. We had to be thankful for all of that.”
The congregation never looked into either the cause or perpetrator of the fire. They didn’t want to dwell on it too much. The sheriff’s department complied with the congregations’ wishes and didn’t investigate the matter.
“We so believe in God so strongly that we just, we are not going to worry about that,” she said. “God will take care of it. He’ll take care of it… We are not going to charge anybody. The church is not going to charge anybody.”
Moen said it was unbelievable how the people of the church and the neighboring churches came together to help during those hard times, until the construction of the church was completed on June 23, 2002.
Nineteen years later, the congregation will celebrate its 125th anniversary with joy and gladness. The celebration is being organized with much cultural taste. The anniversary committee is making a maypole, a tall cross-like pole with flowers, to include at the event.
“This is what they do in Midsummer Sweden,” Moen said. “And (people) dance around it.”
Tables will be decorated with a stream of Swedish blue and yellow ribbons, napkins with Swedish flags on them and little jars containing flowers.
Pulled pork sandwiches, salads and special cake will be catered for the guests. After people finish eating, they can view a photo display assembled by Moen.
“There’s going to be pictures from way back to (today) that have been put on a video that’s going to be (shown),” she said. “I’m going to have tables of memorabilia of old-old hymnals, old-old books, old-old Sunday school things because I’m a keeper.”
An education coordinator will organize children’s activities outside of the church, including a bouncy house, carnival games and root beer floats.
Ostmark Church has meant so much to her throughout her entire life and when her husband died, her friends from church consoled her. They made her supper and gave her a lot of love and affection. They are her church family, and she can’t imagine how people live or survive without such a family.
Leafblad said the story of the church’s buildings is indeed interesting.
“And at the time of our 125th anniversary celebration, it is customary to look back on the past,” she said. “However, we like to make note of that today’s congregation, rather than dwelling in the past, uses it to look for new beginnings, as we are committed to making our church relevant to the needs of all, today and in the future.”