Church as Social Center

Recently I happened upon a fascinating article in the Wisconsin Magazine of History that connected to our family’s history over a hundred years ago.

The subject, “Rural Church Reform in Wisconsin During the Progressive Era” by Brian W. Beltman, looked at the 1904-1920 time frame (Vol. 60, No. 1, Autumn 1976, 3-24). Church attendance was considered low in those years too, with reasons cited as “overchurching, overlapping mission work, and denominational intolerance” (11). As evidence of overchurching, one 1910 survey described an area where 42 churches served 10,500, an average of 240 per church.

Some descriptions of the problem were quite colorful. According to Rev. H. H. Mullen of Walworth, Wisconsin, “Our biggest enemy is the cow, worshipped in southern Wisconsin almost as much as in India. Many a man allows a Jersey or Holstein to come between him and his work for Jesus” (10). One of the solutions suggested was interdenominational cooperation, especially in the arena of service.

The article called for the church to be a social center in the community with concern for every person including “marginal members.” When the author turned to encouraging churches to be nerve centers for community life, he cited the church of our grandparents as a vibrant example. “The Pigeon Creek Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Trempealeau County inspired enthusiastic community involvement in local events, most of which occurred at the church social hall, built in 1906 for $2,300” (23). The article included this photograph.

Pigeon Creek parish hall, on left, 1913

 I found this article quite exciting; I’d never seen a photo of the parish hall before this one. I’m assuming the building no longer stands, but maybe someone has other information. Here’s where we get to family.

In Clara’s Homestead history, she writes that her parents, Bertinus and Maria Estensen, were active in church work at “the S. L. Hall for young people on Sunday night’s social gathering…. Bertinus kept the fires going to heat the hall. Maria supervised coffee-making and helped the young folks” (6). To help you picture this, here’s a second photo from the same article, the hall interior.

Pigeon Creek parish hall dining room, 1913

Very likely this is the stove that Bertinus kept supplied with wood and these are the tables where Maria served coffee. In 1904 the couple had sold their farm and moved to Pigeon Falls, so they lived just a short distance away from this building. Clara adds that Gina too was involved in the Young Peoples Society (17). To clarify, I think that “S. L.” initials with Hall stand for Synod Lutheran.

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