Milaca – Zion Lutheran Church in Milaca is entering a year of celebration leading up to its 125th anniversary in 2018.
Zion was founded in 1893. Steve Blenkush, current Zion pastor, said the church will be taking some time throughout the year to celebrate its history. A cabinet of memorabilia is being created, and the church is planning to invite back past pastors as well as work down some debt through fundraising. Blenkush suggested Zion’s goals are not too different from those of other similar churches.
“That kind of milestone, it’s good to take stock of where you’ve been,” Blenkush said.
Zion’s origin goes back to a pair of public meetings held in October 1893, which were attended and presided over by pastors from Minneapolis and St. Paul. The meetings organized and finalized what was then named the Swedish Lutheran Church, in the Augustana Synod. Unable to afford the rent for the opera house the church was organized in, parishioners simply held early services in their homes.
The church’s first building was completed in 1894. Zion was served by a series of student pastors until 1900, when Erik Hedeen became the church’s first resident pastor. The present Zion Lutheran Church building was constructed in 1914.
When Zion was founded, it was a primarily Swedish congregation. Zion began hosting church services in both English and Swedish in 1922 when O.G. Berg took over as pastor. By the mid-1940s, Swedish services were held only on the third Sunday of each month. Arlene Rice recalls attending a Swedish service at 6 a.m. at Christmastime when she was young.
“I came as a little kid and never understood a word,” she said.
A mild rivalry once existed between the Swedish congregants of Zion and the other Scandinavians who worshiped at Milaca’s predominantly Norwegian church, Trinity Lutheran. In some cases the rivalry persists.
“My sister went to the nursing home, and someone said to her, ‘That’s really nice, you can go to church right across the street,’” Rice said. Her sister replied, “I can’t go there, that’s the Norwegian church.”
That friendly competition between congregations has been put aside during times of trial. Zion’s congregation made use of the Norwegian church’s facilities while its present church building was being built, and again after a fire caused extensive damage in the church’s basement.
“We do speak to the Norwegians, it’s OK,” Rice added.
Jan Brown’s father, Frank Lunn, was pastor at Zion from 1956 to 1966. Brown moved away from Milaca after her father became pastor elsewhere, but she returned to Milaca, and to Zion, later in life.
“I came back about 17 years ago like a homing pigeon,” she said.
Brown’s father’s tenure as pastor brought the construction of the church’s educational wing. Rice remembers Lunn’s generosity when her family’s barn burned down and needed rebuilding.
“Her dad came out on his day off and helped pour cement for our new barn,” she said, “and I thought that was so special.”
Brown’s family also came to the party the Rice family held to celebrate the completion of the barn.
Mary Jo Gruba has been a member of Zion for her entire life and raised her children in the church as well.
“I always felt welcomed and loved,” she said. “I think church always gets you through the good times and the bad times.”
Like many churches in similar areas, Zion has seen its membership get a little smaller, but for its faithful, it is still thriving and full of the spirit that’s carried it for 125 years.
“It’s just a really good church,” Brown said. “It’s a really nice place to be. They let me have my own pew, which I have worn down into to fit me.”