Built on faith: 108-year-old church continues to grow | Kitsap Week

members of the Vinland Lutheran Church congregation sing at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new church building, April 15, in Poulsbo. - Johnny Walker / Kitsap Week
members of the Vinland Lutheran Church congregation sing at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new church building, April 15, in Poulsbo.
— image credit: Johnny Walker / Kitsap Week

POULSBO — Vinland Lutheran Church on Finn Hill Road was unusually vibrant April 15.

While a visiting bishop listened, the members of Minimum Age — lead guitarist and vocalist Erland Cain, drummer Magnus Cain, rhythm guitarist Matthew LaValle, and bassist Kyle Oster — played ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago.”

There was good reason for the cheer.

After seven years of planning and campaigning to build a $1.5 million, 10,000-square-foot fellowship hall and classrooms, the modest congregation of about 250 families was ready to get started. With gilded shovels in hand, church leaders shared a golden moment by officially breaking ground amid song, praise, prayer and laughter.

Marsha Wright beamed as she watched the congregation sing and dedicate the new project. As the great-granddaughter of Ole and Olina Birkeland, who were among the families that founded the church, Wright felt a special connection as she watched Bishop Robert D. Hofstad turn the first shovel. Like her great-grandparents, Wright was participating in a great building effort.

Building Committee Chairman Hayes Journey, Council President Bill Brueggemann and Pastor Chuck Slocum also took their ceremonial turns between praise and prayer. A blessing for the continuity of the land was offered by Father Tim Iistowanohpataakiiwa of the Siksika, or Blackfoot, Nation.

“We have always been a sturdy group of families that could pull together and get things done,” Wright said. “This is a big event in the life of this church.”

Founded on March 26, 1904 by 19 Scandinavian families, Vinland Lutheran Church was first known as “Vinlands Norsk Evegeliske Lutherske Menighed i Vinland Washington.” According to church records, services were first held in the Vinland schoolhouse. In 1908, A. Guldbrandsen donated two acres of land for a house of worship and community cemetery. Volunteers laboriously cleared the land in 1909 and church construction began in 1910. After six years of pooling resources the original church building was dedicated on Sept. 25, 1916. It was well used for 44 years.

Phil Swenson’s grandparents, Halvar and Mary Swenson, were charter members of the church. He would visit them from Seattle during his youth. Now 85, he watched the ceremony April 15 with fond memories of one occasion in 1940, when he played a violin in the windowless basement during a strawberry social.

“The strawberry social cost 15 cents, but my father told me if I played my violin I could get the strawberries for free,” Swenson said. “So I was motivated to go … but the torch has to pass all the time. The church may change, but Christianity has a place here in Vinland.”   Parishioner John Rova had memories of a more troubling day.

It was Monday, Aug. 29, 1960. Rova was 11 years old and he and his father, Victor, were chopping firewood near the intersection of Finn Hill and Clear Creak Road when they heard the old church bell ringing. John’s father thought it was unusual so they stopped and walked up the hill to see what was happening. Minutes later they heard the crackling of flames and saw the growing inferno that would ultimately collapse their church and bury the bell in debris.

Young Rova immediately ran off to call the fire department, but by the time volunteers arrived only remnants of the kitchen could be saved.

Church records reveal the congregation quickly pulled together to build a new church at the same location. A groundbreaking was held Feb. 5, 1961. The building was completed in time for Christmas services that same year. In 1963, a new sanctuary was completed and in 1968, a merger with Grace Lutheran Church from Poulsbo resulted in more expansion.

Over the next few decades, new projects were added to include room for an education center, preschool, and even a new bell tower. During that time, faith and volunteers sustained the work.

Rova remembered how important it felt to participate in rebuilding the church in 1961. He looks forward to what will happen next.

“We’re beginning to turn things over to a new generation,” Rova said. “It’s very rewarding to be here for this.”

Among the new generation: Preschool Director Sherry Gutierrez joined the church after moving to Poulsbo in 2001 and seeks to honor God by nurturing children’s relationships. Preschool programs will benefit from the additional space.

“I’m very excited to be at Vinland because it is such a welcoming place and has such strong inter-generational relationships,” Gutierrez said. “Over half of our preschool children are from the community outside of our church and we are growing to add another class next year. So this is important for the future.”

Bishop Hofstad remarked later, “Doubling the size of the building after 100 years of life is a sign of their vitality, but also of their commitment to mission and ministry. Vinland Lutheran is poised to be an even brighter beacon shining for the entire community of Poulsbo. This is a testament, not only to Vinland’s strong pastoral leadership over the generations, but also to the strong lay leadership that is currently sparking a vision for this 100-year-old congregation. I am delighted that Sunday’s groundbreaking bears witness to this vitality and strength.”


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