My Dad built a church

For years I’ve told family members and others that my father, Robert William Bergeson, worked for the fabled “CCC”, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a major social work program in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He told me a number of times that he did some work on the north shore of Lake Superior and that he and my mother were especially fond of Gooseberry Falls which was near where he worked. I always thought that he worked on a bridge or a park pavilion or trail amenities somewhere in a one of the state parks or maybe even in the Superior National Forest.

I learned recently that Bob wasn’t a “CCC Man” at all. First of all, much of the CCC work was done in the 1930s and Bob was in grammar school for most of that decade. Second, the photographs I discovered at the bottom of an old file cabinet show him at times in a coed group of people, swimming and riding around in an old Army jeep when no work was being done. I knew that wasn’t the nature of CCC work from what I’ve seen in histories of the projects. On the other hand, there were a number of photos of men with power tools and trowels, large pieces of lumber and sizeable boulders. The largest wood pieces looked the roof beams of a church. What gives?

Student Camp Hovland, Minn

A few of the pictures were clipped together with a note that simply said “Hovland, Minnesota”. One of the photos showed two people I didn’t recognize in a jeep with the words “Student Camp, Hovland, Minn” on the windshield frame. As soon as I did a Google search on “Hovland Minnesota church”, I was taken to the website of Trinity Lutheran Church in Hovland. When I clicked on the “History” tab in the menu, I was presented with an amazing story that was unknown to me.

Trinity Lutheran Church was founded in 1909 and its first building was established in 1913. In 1946 the congregation purchased an additional parcel of land along Highway 61 facing Lake Superior with the goal of constructing a new building in a more visible location. At some point in their planning they entered into a collaboration with two members of the St. Olaf College faculty to jointly design the building and use a combination of college student and congregational volunteer labor to build the building.

The following two paragraphs caught my eye:

A fruitful collaboration among Pastor Aubrey Edmonds, Dr. Howard Hong of St. Olaf College (who summered in Hovland), and St. Olaf students led to a new “work-camp effort” structure, with Harald Schuppel of the congregation chairing the building committee. They worked closely with Prof. Arnold Flaten, chair of the St. Olaf art department, leading to an adventure in God’s aesthetic creativity—a beautiful and unique building designed by Flaten with the architectural assistance of Edward Sövik. Notably this early effort launched two noteworthy vocations in sacred art: Flaten as teacher, sculptor, and visual artist; and Sövik as a leading church architect of sacred spaces.

Trinity’s new church was designed to make use of local materials in harmony with its rugged setting on the North Shore. Rock for the foundation, bell tower, and chimney reflected Lake Superior’s geologic history, as did locally obtained lumber from its nearby forest, often cut and milled by church members. Portions of the original church building were salvaged and incorporated, including the maple sanctuary floor, church bell, chairs, and exterior doors. Construction was done by congregational members and community residents, with critical help from the visiting students over three summers (1947-1949). While in Hovland, students stayed in groups with member hosts, led Vacation Bible School, and prepared meals and fundraisers.

At the bottom of the history page there are a number of links to further information. One of those links is titled St. Olaf Lutheran Student Camp Journals (1948-1949) The pages of these journals informed me that my dad spent part of the summer of 1948 working on the church in Hovland. The entry for August 1 (Sunday) has this sentence, “At midnight Bob Bergeson, our wandering one, arrived, and was duly taken under our collective wing.” (There’s no information about where or how long Bob had been wandering, but I’m guessing he was originally supposed to have arrived much earlier that day.)

Click on each photo in the gallery below to enlarge them.

The student camp in 1948 began on July 16 and ended on August 28. During that time they completed the bell tower, finished the basement kitchen, and raised the arches for the roof of the church sanctuary. Not bad for six weeks of work!

Trinity Lutheran Church

In 2016-2019 a number of upgrades were completed on the church, but essentially the building is the same as it was when the students and congregation volunteers finished their work in 1949. I think I’ll wander up there next spring and take a peek at it. Maybe they carved their names in some secret place.

I don’t know why I didn’t ask Bob about more of the things he did before starting a family. It would have been so simple and probably would have elicited some good stories. Maybe one of these nights I’ll ask him when he visits me in my dreams.

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