A Bit of St. Olaf History, 1st Thirty One installments:
1. The founding families of St. Olaf's came here from Norway in 1844 because some neighbors had come to Pine Lake in 1843 & had sent back good reports. The Norwegian clergy didn't follow because it didn't favor emigration. It was the Episcopalians from the Nashotah House Seminary that conducted services, performed ministerial functions, and organized St. Olaf's Congregation as a Norwegian Lutheran church in communion with the Episcopal Church.
2. Early in 1845, Rev. Peter Bockman arrived from Sweden to wrestle St. Olaf's away from the influence of Unonius and the Episcopal Church. In his sermon at St. Olaf's, he told the congregation that, because of their involvement with the Episcopalians, none of them were on their way to heaven. Stay tuned next week to learn the congregation's reaction.
3. According to the Episcopalian, Unonius, who organized and incorporated our congregation as St. Olaf's, Bockman's sermon to the congregation, in which he chastised them for their communion with the Episcopal Church, "caused sparks to fly. Some walked out, others laughed loudly, others howled.” Bockman, with his brand of Scandinavian Lutheranism, was not invited back. Serious problems, however, were on the horizon for the new St. Olaf's Congregation.
4. Seeds of discontent began to sprout when the Lutheran state church in Norway eventually began to realize that it was losing Lutheran emigrants to America to other faiths. Ministers were sent from Norway to gather in the flock. Some at St. Olaf's wanted to have services, baptisms, marriages, and funerals in a language they could understand. Others were appreciative of the ministering of the Episcopalians and wanted to switch to the Episcopalian faith. The result was irreconcilable differences and a split in the church.
5. In addition to organizing St. Olaf's Parish, Gustav Unonius also organized the Scandinavian Parish at Pine Lake in Holy Innocents Cemetery on Hwy. C. In 1847, Rev. J.W.C. Dietrichson, from Norway, arrived at Pine Lake to try to sever its ties with the Episcopalian Church. He reorganized the congregation in 1848 as a subsidiary of the Church of Norway. The congregation at St. Olaf's Parish was paying close attention to the events taking place in that neighborhood six miles to the southeast.
6. The Episcopalian Rev. Unonius refused to allow burials in Holy Innocents Cemetery of those members of the Scandinavian Parish at Pine Lake who wanted the congregation to become Norwegian Lutheran. In addition, he did not acknowledge home baptisms as valid. Rev. J.W.C. Dietrichson consecrated a cemetery for those of a Lutheran persuasion at Stone Bank and confirmed the baptisms of some children that were baptized at home. In 1850, St. John's Lutheran Church was established at the cemetery in Stone Bank. The split in the Scandinavian Parish at Pine Lake was complete. Meanwhile, an identical split was occurring at St. Olaf's.
7. Between 1844 and 1847, St. Olaf's services were held in various homes of the members monthly or less often by Gustav Unonius, a student at the Episcopalian Nashotah House Seminary. On November 22, 1847, a meeting of the men of the church was held at the farm now owned by Scott Hildebrand. It was decided to incorporate as a Protestant Episcopal Church but retain the Norwegian church ritual. Services were to be in Norwegian. It was decided to build a church building across the road from where our church is now located. Specifications were drawn up for the building. It was to be completed by June 24, 1848.
8. Our congregation's first cemetery was located on land donated by Hans Gasmann on the west side of what is now Norwegian Rd. between Lincoln Rd. and Townline Rd. It was called the Gasmann Burial Ground and was consecrated by the Episcopalian, Rev. Kemper in 1845. The first burial occurred that same year. There were 16 known burials at this site. Some were moved to St. Paul's Episcopal Cemetery on Hwy. P after the split in St. Olaf's Congregation. Some burials remain in this unmarked cemetery.
9. Some building materials had been gathered on the Gasmann's Burial Ground site on what is now Norwegian Rd. to construct a church building. These materials were paid for from $0.90 contributions from 10 church families. Inadequate funding, however, prevented its construction. In 1847, they decided to change the site to the S.W corner of what is now our cemetery. The building materials on the first site were given to those members who worked on them in return for the $9 they receive for their labor. The $9 was to be applied to the new church building. Each family was again assessed $0.90 for new materials, and each able-bodied male member was to contribute three days of labor toward construction of the building.
10. Even though the Norwegians of St. Olaf's Parish must have been pleased and excited that they were finally about to have a real church in which to worship after having to hold services for four years in various homes, the disagreements which had been brewing between the Lutheran element and the Episcopal element were about to escalate as will be explained next week.
11. St. Olaf's Parish now had a church building, but the older Norwegians could never learn enough English or Swedish to be satisfied with a service in those languages or a blend of those languages and Norwegian. Many of them naturally preferred to hear services conducted totally in Norwegian; a language they could understand.
12. In addition to not being able to understand the church services because they were not being conducted in Norwegian, Rev. J.W.C. Dietrichson, who had recently come from Norway, was busy in local Scandinavian parishes explaining what he believed were significant differences between the Lutheran and Episcopal faiths. He attempted to influence St. Olaf's Parish to exclude from its constitution any reference to the Protestant Episcopal Church. An indication of the increasing volatility of the situation can be found in a letter from Captain John Gasmann, brother of Hans Gasmann, in which he vowed that "no child of his should ever join that heathen church”.
13. Another problem was brewing, and that problem was money. The new settlers were accustomed to having their clergy paid by the government. They were poor and, except for some produce from the land, they had not been able to make any contributions of money toward the support of a pastor. Although Unonius allegedly told the church leaders at the 1847 meeting that the advantage of being in a relationship with the Episcopalian Church was that the congregation would not have to pay the pastor's salary, he was about to bring up the subject of pastoral support.
14. Up until 1848, Unonius and his family were supported financially and materially by Nashotah House. The translated early church records read, "When the church was almost completed, Unonius spoke on Sunday after the sermon about the following: 'Dear friends, You must do the best you can now to help pay my salary. I will get no more from the Bishop. The mission treasury will not pay for any congregation no more than two or three years. Then the congregation must pay its own pastor."
15. The translated early church records went on to read, "We (the Lutheran element of the congregation) saw so clearly that we had been betrayed (or perhaps 'misled'). We were not sure if the Episcopalian Bishop (Rev. Kemper) had fooled Unonius or if Unonius was doing this on his own. After this, Pastor Unonius came with new demands almost every Sunday."
16. In his memoirs, Unonius wrote the following regarding this issue of ministerial support. "At the beginning I received a missionary grant of $200 a year (from the Nashotah House). The (Episcopal) Church had not planned that it was to be the only support given the grantee. It was given to lighten the burden of poor churches which are expected to contribute what is lacking. That they did not do so was not due to their inability. Most of the new communities in the West depend too much on the aid of the missionary organizations. The sum contributed by the missionary organization, no matter how small, makes them feel altogether relieved of all responsibilities in that respect. In all Christendom there is no country where ministers are so poorly paid as in this land. The warm sympathy which a pastor enjoys at first cools off in time, and the minister is finally compelled to remind his parishioners what is required of them. Most denominations argue that they must wait for a larger membership before they can contribute materially to the support of the church and the minister. But in most cases the reinforcements never become strong enough." The misunderstanding between him and the congregation continued to grow until March 1848 when Unonius left and went to Manitowoc.
17. By the summer of 1848, Unonius had left, and the church building was almost ready for the first service. At the request of the congregation, the Nashotah House assigned Rev. Martin Sorenson to minister to St. Olaf's Parish provided the congregation contributes toward his support. Sorenson was to be paid $100 for his first year of service to St. Olaf's. He received $60.
18. In 1849, the settlers of St. Olaf's Parish at Toland Prairie finally accepted the fact that having a church in this country required supporting their minister. They dealt with it in their by-laws by giving members the option of working on the church building or cemetery or paying a certain amount of money "according to their income and social standing". The assessment was not to exceed 50 cents or one workday for any one member. The Vestrymen were to personally collect the assessed sum or get commitments to perform work. If a member failed to pay when he was asked, he faced "legal expulsion" from the congregation.
19. In 1851, St. Olaf's Congregation was still a Norwegian Lutheran congregation in communion with the Protestant Episcopal Church and was being ministered by the Episcopalian priest, Rev. Sorenson. Sorenson left sometime in 1851 or 1852 and St. Olaf's was without a pastor. In early 1854, the Wardens and Vestry of St. Olaf's wrote the congregation that their request to the Bishop at Nashotah House for a replacement had gone unanswered. So they asked the Norwegian Lutheran minister, Nils Brandt, to become their pastor. Brandt said he would if they contributed to his support. St. Olaf's Parish joined with St. Luke's at Rock River and Pine Lake Norwegian Lutheran Congregation (St. John's) in 1854 to create a three point parish served by Rev. Brandt.
20. In 1854, twelve years after its founding, St. Olaf's finally got its first Norwegian Lutheran pastor. Most of the congregation was happy to disassociate with the Episcopal Church and attend services spoken in a language they could understand. That same year, the Episcopalian Rev. Unonius returned to this area and began again to minister to the few Norwegians in the Ashippun River settlement who wished to remain affiliated with the Episcopal Church. This resulted in a most interesting situation in St. Olaf's Parish.
21. The Episcopalian Rev. Unonius returned just as the Norwegian Lutheran Rev. Brandt was beginning his ministry at St. Olaf's The congregation became completely divided. One could say that there were two congregations at St. Olaf's, Lutheran and Episcopal, using the same little church building in the cemetery. Brandt ministered to those who wanted to remain Lutheran while Unonius ministered to the Norwegians that felt allegiance to Unonius. In addition, a few Irish and Yankee settlers who had started Our Savior's Congregation just to the west of the Norwegian settlement were also using the St. Olaf's church building for their services from time to time.
22. The building and the land on which St. Olaf's church and cemetery were located had monetary value not to mention the sweat that had gone into constructing the church building. The differences between the Lutheran and Episcopalian elements were irreconcilable. If the division in the congregation were to be permanent, which congregation, Lutheran or Episcopalian would be entitled to retain title to the property?
23. The Episcopalian element of the congregation met in 1854 and drafted a letter to the Lutheran element that was using the same church building in our cemetery. The letter allowed the Lutheran element to use the church building for six months but only when the Episcopalian element wasn't using it. After May 14, 1855, the Lutherans could no longer use the building. They wrote that if the Lutherans were to be allowed to use the building for a longer period of time, the Episcopalian element might have to surrender the church property "to those who by their resignation made themselves irrelevant". They thought they had a right to the church property because it was erected and the church incorporated as a part of the Episcopalian Church Society.
24. The Lutheran element responded to the Episcopalian element with a letter in which they wrote that the leaders of the Episcopalian element had deceived the members of this Norwegian Lutheran Evangelical Church into becoming "members of your new sect; a fusion of Lutheran and Episcopal". The letter continued, "We laugh when we hear that you will not .... allow us as Lutherans to use what you refer to as your church building .... and that you resort to both threats and flattery. But what we find most astonishing is how you obtained the church building you now call your own since we believe it belongs to the Norwegian Lutheran Evangelical Church in association with the Episcopal Church."
25. Continuing the Lutheran element's response to the Episcopalian element, the Lutherans declared the association with the Episcopalian Church to be dissolved for the following reasons:
Unonius told them and included in the constitution that St. Olaf's would be organized as a "Norwegian Lutheran Evangelical congregation in association with the American Episcopal Church in Wisconsin". Now the Lutherans were being forbidden to use their own church building.
They were motivated to become associated with the Episcopal Church because Unonius told them they would have a free pastor, but then Unonius started telling them they had to start paying him a salary.
They claimed Unonius stood in the church and reviled the Lutheran Church and its pastors.
The Lutheran letter of response to the Episcopalian element threatened legal action and refused Unonius permission to conduct any worship services in the church building If he did not comply with their warning and "allow us to keep our church and divine services".
26. The wrangling between the Norwegian and Episcopalian elements of St. Olaf's Congregation, who were neighbors outside the church, continued with the Lutherans continuing to claim that Unonius deceived them and Unonius reiterating that "the congregation was just as he wanted it to be and that the church would be 'closed up' to the Lutherans on May 14, 1855". The Lutherans wondered if Unonius knew what religion he was preaching. They wrote, "We know plainly it is not Lutheran, and we do not believe it is Episcopal. It is in our opinion a mixed or new sect, and he also preaches in a mixed language; Norwegian and Swedish and sometimes in English and uses the Episcopal books and ceremonies in violation of the church constitution."
27. In his memoirs, the Episcopalian priest, Unonius, wrote, "I shall never forget the cordiality and kindness I always found there (at St. Olaf's) among the Norwegian country folk. By recalling their affection, I shall seek to silence the bitter memories of the ingratitude and duplicity of some of their fellow countrymen". The Norwegian, Rev. Brandt, wrote in his memoirs, "Unonius worked against me at Ashippun. On one occasion, he locked the church door against me. A couple of men from the congregation went to Bishop Kemper (at Nashotah House) and obtained his permission to remove the lock from the church door so I could preach there. I tried to get the congregation to join the Synod, but they refused. They felt that they had been mixed up in a similar deal once and did not wish to do so again."
28. There were more families in the Lutheran element than the Episcopalian element of St. Olaf's Congregation. This contributed to the Lutherans keeping the church property. The other contributing factor was the establishment of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in 1856 that made it somewhat more palatable for the Episcopalian element to leave. Most of them had united themselves with St. Paul's by 1860.
29. Although the Episcopalian element found a home at the new St. Paul's Parish, hard feelings persisted among neighbors for years. The following letter was written on December 3, 1923 by Louis Ostenson to his cousin, James Peterson. The Ostenson family had left St. Olaf's for St. Paul's Congregation. The book Hjalmar mentioned in the letter is a historical fiction written by James Peterson and set in the Town of Ashippun. "Dear Cousin James, I have sometimes thought that it would have been interesting if you had incorporated in your book Hjalmar some mention of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in Ashippun; how it was started; and how it was switched away from the founders, the Episcopalians. Father (Engebret Ostenson) told me that if it had not been for Hans Roe (Ray) that St. Olaf’s church would still have belonged to the Episcopalians of the surrounding neighborhood. So this is the way it was pulled off. Hans Roe; encouraged by some others as the Solvesons, Erick Helgeson, and others, went around among all the people of the parish with a paper for them to sign if they could, so he prevailed on them to do. In each of his coat pockets, Mr. Hans Roe had a whiskey bottle to make it easier for the people to see the reasonableness of his arguments or to take the place of any reason at all. With these whiskey bottles he succeeded in getting a majority of the signatures in the parish, and so it was decided that it was no longer an Episcopalian parish but a Lutheran parish. Father told me that Erick Helgeson was no better than any of the others, and Father told me that if Hans Roe had not gone around with those two whiskey bottles in his pockets, he would not have been able to switch the parish over. Bishop Kemper was a peace loving man and rather than to have any trouble, he let that Lutheran faction keep the building which they had gobbled and advised his remaining people to begin the building of another church for their own use."
30. St. Olaf's reincorporated as a Norwegian Lutheran Congregation on February 2, 1860 so that there would be no reference to the Episcopal Church. The history of our church is quite famous in the history of the Lutheran Church in America. Was the Lutheran or Episcopalian perspective more accurate regarding the turbulent early years? Rather than looking for blame, one should consider where St. Olaf's would be now had there not been a Kemper, Unonius, and the Episcopalian mission at Nashotah. Without them would there even be a St. Olaf's Church today with all its rich history and tradition of community service, outreach, and good works? All members of St. Olaf's Lutheran Congregation owe a huge debt of gratitude to those devoted fellow Christians of the Episcopalian faith who ministered to our churchless forefathers during the years when they were forsaken by the church of their homeland.
31. Rev. Harold Ezra Wagner wrote in The Episcopal Church In Wisconsin: A History of the Diocese of Milwaukee - 1947, "St. Olaf’s Church at Ashippun continued for some years in union with the (Episcopal) Diocese of Wisconsin, but eventually under pressure from Lutheran leaders severed this relationship and became fully Lutheran, only in the course of time to disintegrate and disappear". The last time I looked, St. Olaf's Congregation was still alive and well in 2020 "Sharing God's Love And Caring For Community".