Fifty-two years ago Martha Norrgard walked off a boat onto the soil of her native Sweden.
“When I stepped foot off the boat and hit the ground, a thrill went through me. This is where my roots were,” Norrgard said in a December 2014 interview with the Mille Lacs County Times.
Milaca was changed forever by that trip to Sweden.
Norrgard, the founder of Zion Lutheran Church’s “Swedish Singers” and one of three women in 1979 founded the church’s annual Santa Lucia Luncheon, died Wednesday, June 24.
Norrgard was born March 21, 1921 in Vrigstad, Sweden and moved to Minnesota when she was six months old. It wasn’t until she was 42 years old that she embraced her Swedish heritage after her father, Oscar Calberg, paid her way to Sweden.
“I could care a less if I was Swedish when I was young,” Norrgard said in the December interview.
But upon returning from the trip, Norrgard started to learn her native tongue and eventually became a teacher of the Swedish language and a translator of the language for the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.
Norrgard was raised in Bogus Brook Township where her parents Oscsar and Ingrid Carlberg owned a farm. She and her siblings Leroy, Robert, and Bernice attended District 28 School, and later, Milaca High School.
In 1941 Martha married Clinton Norrgard in Bock and moved to Detroit. She returned to Milaca when Clint was called to serve in World War II, and remained in the area until he returned home from the war in 1945. The Norrgard’s then built a home in South Minneapolis where they raised their six children, Elizabeth, Sandra, James, Phillip, Paul and David. The family moved to Shoreview in 1965. Seven years later the Norrgards returned to Milaca.
Norrgard was active in the Zion Lutheran Church choir when the family returned to Milaca. She was also very involved in many church committees.
So it was only natural that in 1979, when the son of Magny and Louise Peterson came home from Gustavus Adolphus College sharing the idea for a celebration he saw at school, that Louise Peterson called upon her friends Virginia Christensen and Martha Norrgard to help make the new Milaca celebration a reality, Norrgard recalled.
More than 300 people turned out at Zion Lutheran Church for that first luncheon and they were treated to quite a sight, Norrgard recalled in December 2014.
Some of the women who served as hosts wore costumes of white blouses, red vests, navy skirts and aprons. It was the group’s goal to make five new costumes each year, Norrgard said. A year later, in 1980, Santa Lucia began wearing a crown Norrgard and her husband Clint purchased on a visit to Sweden, she said.
The third season went down as one of the most memorable for Norrgard. By no means was it her favorite memory.
“The three of us (Norrgard, Christensen and Louise Peterson) and our husbands were in the kitchen all day the day before the luncheon and cooked all the food ourselves,” Norrgard recalled in December 2014.
That night, there was a horrible storm, she said.
“Everything was canceled the next day. But at that time you could bring food to the Elim Home, so that’s what we did,” she said. “They had our dinner.”
Norrgard’s favorite memories were ones that still continue to this day. They were the performances of the Swedish Singers, a choral group Norrgard formed for the seventh year of the luncheon in 1986. For 28 years, the singers have been entertaining luncheon-goers with native Swedish song, and Norrgard proudly sat among the Swedish Singers on December 12, 2014 where she performed with the group she founded one last time.
Norrgard also helped establish the Milaca Senior Center in 1998.
Norrgard was preceded in death by her husband, Clinton; father, Oscar; mother, Ingrid and brothers, Leroy and Robert.
She is survived by her sister, Bernice Hedin of Mesa, Arizona; children, Elizabeth Woods of Eagan, Sandra Warmanen of Milaca, James (Judy) Norrgard of Isle, Phillip (Lorraine) Norrgard of Cloquet, Paul (Joni) Norrgard of Milaca and David (Cori) Norrgard of Andover; 16 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
A funeral service for Martha Norrgard will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, July 10 at Zion Lutheran Church in Milaca. Visitation is one hour before the service at the church.