One last service

COULEE Bethlehem Lutheran Church, just west of Coulee, will close its doors for good next month, but first it will have a celebration of the life of the 113-year-old congregation.

The Rev. Cole Bentley, who has been pastor at the church for the past two years, said the congregation will celebrate on Aug. 17 with a morning worship service at 9:30 a.m., followed by a luncheon at which people will reminisce about the church. At 2 p.m. there will be a closing service, followed by cake and coffee.

“This is a really wonderful group with very faithful people,” said Bentley, who added that it has been a pleasure serving the congregation and watching how gracefully they decided it was time to close the church.

“The membership has declined fairly substantially,” said Bentley.

There are also issues with the upkeep of the church, which was built in 1908, as well as with diminishing membership and funds for the upkeep of the church building.

Current church members will likely attend other Lutheran churches in nearby towns. Bentley is currently the pastor at churches in Powers Lake, Battleview and three rural Kenmare churches.

Since the members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church are all pretty spread out, Bentley said he isn’t sure where everyone in his congregation will attend church in the coming months.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church is a very rural church, located six miles west of Coulee and a mile south.

“It’s really just out in the middle of the prairie,” said Bentley.

The congregation got its start in November 1901 when a number of Norwegian and Swedish immigrant families in the area first met at the home of Carl Christianson to organize a church.

Present at the first meeting were Carl Christianson, Arne Sande, Ole Sande, Hans Anderson, Hans Grenvik, Ole Lee and Ed Pederson. The meeting was led by the Rev. T.H. Tonneson of Minot. Carl Christianson, Hans Grenvik and Ed Pederson were elected trustees and Ole Sande was elected secretary.

In April 1902, the congregation met to arrange to hire a pastor along with the Flaxton and Mouse River congregations. That May, they hired the Rev. Sigrud Fladmark as the first pastor of the congregation. He served for eight years and was paid $50 for one year. In 1909, the pastor’s salary was raised to $200 per year. Fladmark was the first of numerous pastors and student pastors who have served the church over its century of existence.

By 1906, the congregation decided to start a fund drive to build a church building.

The cemetery was first laid out on land owned by Peter Sande but at a business meeting held Feb. 11, 1908, it was decided to move it to its present location on land donated by Tollef Rasmusson.

The church building was erected in the summer of 1908. Prior to its construction, most meetings and services were held at Fladmark’s home, located about one mile west and one-fourth mile north of the present location of the church.

In 1910, the church yard and cemetery were fenced with cedar posts. A hitching rail was put up just north of what is now the entry gate. Church records show no record of when the barn was built, but it was located west of the cemetery until it blew down in 1940.

Also in 1910, the inside fixtures for the church were placed and the cornerstone for the church was laid. In the summer of 1915, the church was painted both inside and outside. It was dedicated by the Rev. P.A. Hendrickson, the president of the North Dakota district of the church.

In 1932, the church basement was dug and a coal furnace was installed. The furnace was purchased at Ringen’s in Kenmare for $347. The money was given to the congregation by the Ladies Aid and the Young People’s Society.

In 1938, the congregation began offering English services, which were alternated with Norwegian services every other Sunday.

In 1958, the parish merged from a five-point parish to a three-point parish, including Lostwood, Hope (Coulee and St. Luke) and Bethlehem (Zion and Bethlehem). In 1958, the members of Bethlehem Lutheran and Zion Lutheran of Palermo merged as one congregation.

In 1962, the new red hymnals of the American Lutheran Church were purchased, with each family buying one in memory of a loved one. Also in 1962, the propane tank and heating stove for the dining room in the church was purchased.

The exterior of the church was painted in 1970, 1985 and 1996.

Beginning in 1970, the church began offering joint services and Sunday school with Hope Lutheran Church of Coulee, alternating services between the churches. In 1970, the church became part of the Greater Kenmare Parish, which consisted of five churches: Nazareth, Elmdale, Trinity, Hope and Bethlehem Lutheran Churches.

In 1975, the church closed its Luther League because there were no young people in the congregation.

In 1976, a Cemetery Association for Bethlehem and Zion Cemeteries was incorporated. In 1990, the association had markers installed on all unmarked graves.

In 1990, Hope Lutheran Church of Coulee closed its doors due to dwindling membership and 23 members joined Bethlehem.

In 1997, Nazareth Lutheran withdrew from the Greater Kenmare Parish and Bethlehem began having joint services with Elmdale and Trinity Lutheran churches.

Now that it is nearing an end, decisions will have to be made about what to do with the historic building and the contents of the church, said Bentley. He said a decision could be made by August.