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A history of faith

Photos by Rachelle Klemme Parishioner Harris Bendix kneels at a pew at Messiah Lutheran Church, which will have its closing service Sept. 9. Bendix was baptized and raised in the 130-year-old church, and his ancestors were charter members.1 / 2
The Rev. Del Moen, pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church along with two other Lutheran churches in the area, said the closure process of the Wadena church is "not fun." Moen plans to continue living in Wadena.2 / 2

One of the area's oldest churches will close its doors next weekend due to declining membership and attendance.

Messiah Lutheran Church at 601 Jefferson St. S. will hold its final service and communion Sept. 9 at 10:30 a.m.

"There's a special Lutheran ceremony for the closing of a church, where the different pieces of worship are physically removed from the church as part of the service," congregation president Don Niles said. "I know that's going to be terribly difficult."

The church's pastor, the Rev. Del Moen, said the service will be a chance for goodbyes, thanksgiving and a look at history.

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe of the Northwest Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) described a worship service of closure as "a dedication of a church building in reverse," where they thank God for the church's past ministry, and then decommission the altar, communion vessels and other worship items.

Members of the public may attend the service, which is to include a representative of the Northwest Minnesota Synod.

The ELCA is open communion, meaning one does not need to be a member of the denomination to receive communion.

The congregation had its official vote to close earlier this year. The church is 130 years old.

A long history

Messiah Lutheran Church was established in 1882 under a different name and in a different location.

The congregation had its origin in Compton Township with a group of Swedish immigrants, according to a 1982 church history document provided by parishioners Harris Bendix and Marge Leslie. It was originally known as the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Compton, and under the Augustana Synod church body. Two church buildings were erected in the 1880s, although one was discontinued around 1911. The congregation continued to hold services in the remaining building along Otter Tail County Highway 73, a mile south of Minnesota State Highway 29, where the church's cemetery still remains.

Bendix, a lifetime parishioner, remembered growing up with the country church in the 1940s and 1950s. He was baptized in the church, and his great-grandparents were charter members.

Bendix recalled that in farm communities at the time, the two main things going on were the church and the rural school district.

In 1961, the church moved into the former St. John Lutheran Church building near downtown Wadena. The picture of Jesus at the altar was from the old country church.

The church's name was changed to Messiah in 1963. In the early 1960s, people also saw the merging and splitting of different Lutheran church bodies, and Messiah became part of the Lutheran Church of America (LCA), which was a separate denomination from Wadena's Immanuel Lutheran Church until their respective church bodies merged into the ELCA in the late 1980s.

Leslie and her husband joined the church in the fall of 1971, after moving to Wadena. The pastor at the time had previously been the pastor of her former Augustana Synod church in Brooklyn Center near Minneapolis.

Bendix said church attendance increased after the 1960s move into Wadena, and they had two services every Sunday at one point. But the merger of the LCA and American Lutheran Church (ALC), beginning in the late 1980s, might have sealed their fate. Throughout the years, church members have been fewer and older.

Niles joined the church when he married existing member Loni Niles in 2006. Moen was the pastor who performed their wedding and pre-marriage classes.

Niles said everyone around that time knew the church's closing was imminent. Attendance was spotty with anywhere between two and 16 people showing up at a given service, he said.

The church's average worship attendance fell from 46 in 1990 to 12 in 2011, according to the ELCA's congregation trend report.

"We're dying off is what's happening," Bendix said.

Facing the future

Besides Messiah, Moen is also the pastor of Balsamlund Lutheran Church in rural Aldrich and Elmo Lutheran Church in rural Parker's Prairie. Those two will continue on, and Wohlrabe said the synod will be helping them for the future.

Moen, pastor since 1992, plans to continue living in Wadena. He and his wife, Mary, a teacher in the Staples school system, are purchasing the parsonage. At least for now, Moen will continue as pastor of Balsamlund and Elmo Lutheran Churches.

The Messiah Lutheran Church building is listed for sale.

"It's been a really neat little congregation," Niles said, adding that the parishioners and pastor are active in the community for such a small church. Moen served as chair of Wadena Otter Tail Long Term Recovery Committee.

One of the church's community traditions was a live nativity, performed at the Wadena Armory jointly with Balsamlund. Niles said Balsamlund will probably continue the live nativity on its own.

Other church activities included the food shelf and the twice-a-year garage sale.

Moen said the Wadena community generally values its diverse group of churches.

"They are part of the foundation of the community," he said. "When there is a loss of one, that hurts the community, even if it's a small one. I'm hoping that from that, the community will take extra care about how they work with their churches. I would like them to be strong and healthy."