Bethlehem Lutheran Church history
Bethlehem Lutheran Church was founded in 1919 with the merger of three congregations: Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, which was started in 1867 with 25 members; Trinity Lutheran Church, started in 1869 with 6 or 7 families; and Le Sueur Lutheran Church, a rural church started by Trinity’s pastor. Our Savior’s and Trinity were one block apart, west of the current site of Bethlehem.
Services were held in the former Trinity sanctuary following the merger, but it was soon determined to be too small and plans were made for a new church building. Property was purchased on the corner of South Second and Liberty Streets, and a new sanctuary was built and dedicated on December 7, 1924. In 1931 a new pipe organ was installed. A parish house and chapel were added in 1951-1952.
By 1967, Bethlehem’s centennial year, many steps had been taken to extend its ministry. Staff had expanded to include an associate pastor, parish worker, and office secretaries. There were four worship sessions each Sunday and three Sunday school sessions. Bethlehem sponsored foreign missions, radio broadcasts of the Sunday service, and a connection with Lutheran Campus ministry at Mankato State College, all three of which continue to the present. Bethlehem was involved with the establishment of a mission congregation in the hilltop area of Mankato-a group of Bethlehem’s members formed the nucleus of Christ the King Lutheran Church. Bethlehem also supported the establishment of Messiah Lutheran Church in North Mankato and Epiphany Lutheran Church in Eagle Lake.
Because of the growth of Bethlehem, plans were made to build a new, larger church building adjacent to the 1924 church, parish house, and chapel. The new building was dedicated on November 3, 1968. The walls of the sanctuary display 64 paintings of historical figures from Christianity, painted by Cyrus B. Running (1913-1976), an artist at Concordia College. The sculpture “Crucifixion” by Paul Granlund (1925-2003), sculptor in residence at Gustavus Adolphus College, was installed in front of the church in 1977 and forms the focus of a small garden. A new Holtkamp pipe organ was dedicated on September 7, 1980, with a concert by renowned organist Paul Manz.
On April 7, 1978, the former church building burned. All that remained of the older structure were the chapel and education wing. The damaged building was razed and a new wing added to house the Heritage Room, Lutheran Social Services offices, and youth areas.
In 2003 the new wing was remodeled to provide space for a day care center and an updated youth room. The YWCA leased the day care space and ran the center until 2007 when Bethlehem Child Care Center took over the day care. This provided Christian day care for infants, toddlers, and preschool children. The day care center closed in 2012 and is now presently the REACH Center for homeless youth.
Bethlehem continues to have an active interest in mission. Each month a specific mission project is designated to which funds are directed. These include both global and local missions. Bethlehem also sponsors Dr. Mark and Linda Jacobson’s mission in Tanzania. Bethlehem women annually put on a Nordic Bazaar with the funds donated to mission projects.
Bethlehem has an especially active youth ministry. During the year young people participate in worship services, go on mission trips, go skiing, participate in Christmas caroling, have overnight “lock-ins” at the church, and many other activities. In each of the past seven years a youth group has taken a weeklong canoe trip to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. “The Attic” is a large room dedicated to youth and is located on the upper floor of the education building. It is equipped with a kitchen, pool table, many tables and chairs, and the latest audio and visual equipment.
Don Roberts was a pastor at Bethlehem from 1989 to 1996, when he retired because of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Pastor Don continues to be an inspiration of life and faith to the Bethlehem congregation, he writes devotionals that appear in each month’s church newsletter with the aid of a letter board and an assistant. His book, a collection of his writings, is available in the church office.
Bethlehem currently has two pastors. Pastor Jay Dahlvang is the senior pastor and Pastor Collette Broady Grund is the associate pastor.