Faith in their community

Since 1903, Grace University Lutheran Church has been a neighborhood mainstay, even as the neighborhood disappeared.

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

At 84 years old, June Calin Storms remembers the Grace University Lutheran Church on the corners of Harvard and Delaware streets from another time, before the University’s health sciences buildings sprouted along Washington Avenue.

Storms recalled crossing the old Washington Avenue Bridge to get to her family’s church, where she was baptized in 1919.

“We used to walk there,” she said of the Sunday trips. “The old bridge was just one street, and the walkway was wooden planks.”

The southeast Minneapolis neighborhood that once surrounded the church is gone. But, while the area around it has changed in the last 100 years, the church has stayed true to form.

Established in 1903 and now flanked by Weaver-Densford Hall to the north, Moos Tower to the west and the VFW Cancer Research Center to the south, the church and its congregation continue to thrive.

Pastor Dan Garnaas and his wife, Pastor Mary Halvorson, have been the self-described “congregational couple” of the church for 10 years. Currently, they are preparing an expansion project that will break ground in April and finish in November, he said.

The addition will feature better accessibility, while staying true to the design that has made the church an official historic site, he said.

“We can’t say we’re open to everyone when folks in wheelchairs can’t come in,” Garnaas said.

Garnaas said most of the money for the new addition came from private donations.

‘This church should stand’

Garnaas and Storms said former Gov. Elmer Anderson ensured there would forever be a spot for the small church on what the University considered prime real estate.

Garnaas said original designs for the University’s Health Sciences area did not include the church.

“The ‘U’ would have loved to have this property,” Storms said. “But former Gov. Anderson’s wife grew up in the church, and he was married there in 1940. And when he was on the (University’s) Board of Regents, he said, ‘This church should stand.’ “

Although one-third of the approximately 200 Sunday patrons are visitors, the church continues to stand due to a tight-knit and financially dedicated core congregation, he said. The church has 500 members.

“Folks are committed to this place,” Garnaas said.

‘A genuine concern for others’

The church’s lack of a traditional neighborhood support has not hurt it either.

“This should be a congregation at risk, but we aren’t,” Garnaas said.

Molecular biology and genetics graduate student Annie Davidson has been attending for five years and was drawn by the warmth and openness of the church.

“I felt a genuine concern for others and a genuine reaching out,” Davidson said of the congregation.

The church has a long history of outreach, said Bill Dexheimer Pharris, an ordained pastor and chaplain at nearby Fairview-University Medical Center. He was a church member for a few years in the 1980s.

“Pastors Dan and Mary are very welcoming and very in tune with what people go through at the hospital,” he said. “They’d be great chaplains themselves.”

Having a serene place down the block is valuable for patients and their families when going through hectic times, he said.

“It normalizes things, and quiets you down,” Pharris said.

Pharris said he first saw the church as a unifying element in the community after beginning his chaplain job eight years ago.

When a longtime staff member at the hospital died, Garnaas and Halvorson hosted a memorial service at the church.

“We filled up the church,” Pharris said. There was no talk or thought given to compensation for using the church.

“They would never think of charging for something like that,” he said. “Dan and Mary said, ‘this is part of who we are.’ And they had cookies and coffee.”

“They do not see themselves as insulated from the rest of the world. They are part of a larger community,” he said. “And I am very grateful for their presence.”

‘It’s still there’

“I just think this is the coolest sanctuary,” Garnaas said while walking down the main aisle on a recent weekday afternoon.

While having a Swedish Lutheran base, the church also holds a variety of other spiritual events including meditation and tai chi, Garnaas said.

From the pews to the candle holders that a former pastor fashioned decades ago, the empty church exudes a century of serene stillness and solemnity, a place isolated from the bustle of University life outside its doors.

Touches of the church’s place in the modern community are apparent throughout the building. In the basement, partially blocking some historical photos, sit piles of towels, toiletries and other day-to-day necessities for visitors from the nearby Center for Victims of Torture.

Center for Victims of Torture spokeswoman Tricia Cornell said the church has helped the organization with financial contributions.

Renee Sieving, University public health professor and a 13-year church member, said she was attracted to the church’s mix of spirituality and progressive involvement in social issues.

“They walk their social justice talk,” Sieving said.

The church also gives students a sense of stability during a transitional time in their lives, she said.

“Here, it’s old people and young people, not all sophomore math majors,” she said. “There’s a quietness and a calm that is important in our chaotic University environment. The church gives a chance to be part of a larger community at a time when students are sort of drawn away from that.”

Storms, who turns 85 soon, will move back to Minnesota from Arizona in April, can’t wait to get back to the church where she has been a member her entire life.

“It’s remarkable that there is this little church in the middle of this mammoth hospital growth,” she said. “And it’s still there.”