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The last worship: Member says church closing similar to “a death in the family”

The First Lutheran Church of Hines, located at 17713 Lookout Tower Road, was built in 1915, with the front edition being added on in the late 1980s. Brian Matthews | Bemidji Pioneer

HINES – Travel north of Bemidji on Highway 71, just past Gull Lake, and you will pass through Beltrami County’s Hines Township, easily missed if you blink while driving past its highway sign.

Not much stands the test of time in Hines, a township with a population of 689 people in the 2010 U.S. Census. Many residents have come and gone, moving to bigger communities in the area or leaving the state all together.

The one thing that has outlasted many of Hines’ residents is the 97-year-old First Lutheran Church, a classic small-town worship hall with beautiful stain glass windows, a pulpit set in front of a painting of Jesus Christ and a steeple that stands tall above the surrounding trees.

But while the paint continues to wear off and balcony goes unused, the church has struggled to hold a steady congregation. With just five families left and a retired pastor that is not always available to lead worship, the church decided it will close next Sunday, when the congregations will sing church hymns and recite the Lord’s Prayer one last time.

Church member Donna Hendrickson has attended church at First Lutheran for 70 years, having gone through Sunday school, confirmation and marriage in the church’s sanctuary.

Recently, as she sat in the church reflecting on her years there, she remembered the smell of the fish fry, congregation meetings and confirmation classes. Memories that she carries with her in a building she has spent many Sunday mornings.

 “To me it is like a death in the family almost,” Hendrickson said. “It takes a while for it to sink in.”

Hendrickson said she has not made a decision on where she will go to church after Sunday, though she has visited several area churches including the Zion Lutheran Church in Blackduck, the closest option.

The decision to close the church was not abrupt; it is something that has been in the minds of Hendrickson and the rest of the congregation for several years.

Last October, the church closed until this past April, a trial period that saved the church some money.

Jean Larson, who was married in the church 53 years ago on Sept. 19, said the decision to close the church did save money, but the decision was not based on finances, nor is the decision to close the church permanently.

“We wanted it to stay open so we gave,” Hendrickson said.

The church has had money, but Larson questioned whether it was worth continuing to give money to a church with so few members.

“It’s not growing, we don’t have any little children (and) we don’t have an organist anymore,” Larson said. “Are we worshiping the church building just because we want to be here?”

The active congregation has been at the church for as many of 70 years and as few as 30, a trend that has not held true for the pastors in recent years.

Steve Bomgren, a retired pastor from Kelliher who now lives in Blackduck, has lead services when he can for the last couple of years.

Prior to Bomgren, the church had various shared pastors from the Zion Lutheran Church. The last consistent pastor was Vernon Nelson, who led the congregation from 1974 to 1987, when he retired.

Nelson, who now resides in Bemidji, said the downturn of the church began in 1987, not because of his retirement but because the churched joined the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church organization composed of 10,500 congregations across the U.S.  He said some of the congregation did not like the change and found other churches.

He acknowledged that small community churches like First Lutheran are closing more frequently because it is easier to travel to places like Bemidji and Blackduck for church than it was in the past.

“Some of it is just the natural search that folks have for religious grounding and religious beliefs,” Nelson said “Sometimes it is a matter of personal preference and the emphasis of the church.”

After the church’s last service, Larson said they hope to sell the building, something they admit will not be an easy task.

“Hopefully someone would buy it and use it as a church, Larson said. “That would be the greatest thing that could happen with it.”

Hendrickson said the congregation will take things they have donated to the church, but other than that the plan is to sell the building as is.

More than 100 past members of the congregation have been invited to the last service, which will be followed by a church dinner with Swedish meatballs, a fitting meal for a church that once conducted services in Swedish.