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Faith for the ages at Port Madison Lutheran

Myrtle Belling was one of two babies baptized 90 years ago tomorrow, when the first services were held at Port Madison Lutheran Church. Both Belling and Minnie O’Brien will be in the congregation at the church’s 90th birthday observance. - RYAN SCHIERLING photo
Myrtle Belling was one of two babies baptized 90 years ago tomorrow, when the first services were held at Port Madison Lutheran Church. Both Belling and Minnie O’Brien will be in the congregation at the church’s 90th birthday observance.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING photo

Ninety years ago on Pentacost Sunday, May 19, 1912, the island’s Norwegian community dedicated a new church building on the corner of Madison Avenue and Torvanger Road.

A sizable congregation turned out that morning, and two baby girls were baptized.

Tomorrow is also Sunday, May 19, and the Pentacost observance on the church calendar. The church will again be full for the morning service.

And when Port Madison Lutheran Church celebrates its 90th birthday, the two girls baptized at that first service 90 years ago will both be in attendance.

“It’s the same little old church,” said Minnie O’Brien, who was born in March 1912. “We lived few and far between from our neighbors, so I always looked forward to going to church. That was our only social activity.”

Myrtle Belling, who was born on Christmas Eve 1911, says much of the church has remained unchanged in the past nine decades.

“The altar looks the same as it did then,” she said. “The baptismal font is the same one they used for me. It’s the only one they’ve had, as far as I know.”

Belling, who still lives only a few blocks away from the church, and O’Brien, who lives near Tacoma, will be honored guests tomorrow for a birthday celebration and building rededication.

While no baptisms are scheduled, four children will be confirmed into the church, and a dozen new members will be received, according to Pastor Lori Hoyum.

“This church has struggled off and on for a few years,” Hoyum said. “But it’s been coming back the last few years. We average 95-100 on Sundays now.”

Belling recalls the depths of the church’s struggles.

“I remember one Sunday when it was just the organist, me and my mother, and the preacher,” she said. “But there are a lot of people now – a lot of children, which you like to see. I think the young couple we have as pastors have done a wonderful job,” she sai, referring to Lori and her husband Ron, who was co-pastor at the church until he was called to be the bishop’s assistant last year.

The building of the church building was women’s work.

At the turn of the century – the last one – the men from the Norwegian enclave on the north end of the island used to row to Ballard for Sunday services. The wives were left home to take care of the children. They not only insisted that a church be built on the island, but raised much of the money for it.

“The women in this church have not been demure types who will sit back and wait for things to happen,” Hoyum said. “They made it happen.”

The church established itself in 1907 at the home of Martin Torvanger.

Five years later, an islander remembered only as Mr. Trimble was persuaded to donate an acre of land along Torvanger Road as the site, and the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Port Madison had a permanent home.

“The Lutheran churches were enclaves of ethnicity then,” Hoyum said, noting that the Swedish community had its own church, the ancestor of present-day Bethany Lutheran. “People tended to cling together with others from their part of the world.”

Part of the clannishness was based simply on language, O’Brien said.

“I remember that Port Madison had an English service in the morning and a Norwegian service in the afternoon,” she said, “and we went to both.

“My folks came from Norway, and we couldn’t speak English until we went to school and learned.”

Christmas was always a high point, O’Brien said.

“I remember the Christmas tree,” she said, “and the man who used to stand beside it with a bucket of water because there were live candles on the tree.”

The church has become multi-cultural, Hoyum said. In fact, it has been designated as an “ethnically diverse” congregation within the Evangelican Lutheran Church, meaning it has an unusually high proportion of non-Caucasians.

But the congregation hasn’t lost its feeling of family, she said.

“The church is small enough for real camaraderie,” she said. “Kids get to know everybody in the church, and connect with people of all ages. They have lots of ‘grandparents’ and ‘parents’ here.”

And for its age, the building is still in good shape.

“It’s going to be around at least another 90 years,” Hoyum said. “The members really love this place. They believe their ministry to the island is to care for this building.”

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