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Erskine parish fixes steeple for lower price to stay alive

A crew reshingles the steeple of Rodnes Lutheran Church east of Erskine, Minn., on Thursday. The church opted for a $10,000 renovation of the steeple rather than a $30,000 restoration. JOHN SETNNES | FORUM COMMUNICATIONS CO.

ERSKINE - Rodnes Church, founded by Norwegian immigrants in 1885, has fought the good fight over its 127 years.

Despite a membership that has slipped to 50 and an average Sunday attendance of 25 this year, the Lutheran congregation holds services each week with a full-time minister. While other rural churches have folded or consolidated with population in decline, Rodnes has persevered.

"The ladies have to work hard cooking to make money," said Marian Varnson, 92, when asked how it has survived.

But bake sales and dinners - along with contributions to the offering plate - have their limits. Members realized that when they learned it would take $30,000 to restore the church steeple to its original appearance.

Instead, they opted for a $10,000 renovation that will keep the 75-foot steeple in place and replace the shingles. Restoring the original wooden detailing was beyond their means.

"It's too bad when you see the original pattern and how pretty it would have been," Varnson said. "But it's the money, and we're such a small group."

Others share in the mixed feelings of Varnson, who was baptized, confirmed and married in Rodnes, as were her three children. Members are pleased the steeple will get the required repair, but saddened by the inability to bring it back to its original condition.

"Yes, it would have been nice and looked nice, but we're practical people," Arlene Dorr said. "Cost-wise, it's beyond our reach."

The Rev. Peter Satren said the renovation was "not practical" for the size of the congregation. "We don't hear a lot of crying over spilled milk because we did what we had to do," he added.

"The bigger question is if we can keep going as small as we are," he said.

It's a church built on tradition. For many years, it has offered a Christmas service spoken in Norwegian, drawing a big crowd.

It's a matter of having enough parishioners, not of future repairs, because the church and its attached fellowship hall are otherwise in good shape. Members are industrious, as they have a long history of doing their own projects. Sixty-one years ago, members moved the church across the gravel road to its current location to provide more space for its cemetery.

And, they have a long history of service. Pat Dorr has been the congregation organist "for at least 55 years, maybe more." Varnson has prepared more lutefisk dinners than she wants to remember.

However, an ominous sign is that Rognes no longer offers Sunday School.

"We're a little country church that is hanging on," Arlene Dorr said.