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St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Esko, Minnesota

Roland Lovstad, editor

[Cemetery listing for St. Matthews Cemetery]

1902: the first year

Like many churches in a predominantly rural area, St. Matthews Lutheran Church reflects a good measure of the ethnicity and history of its community. Founded at the turn of the century by Finnish pioneers, the congregation has experienced the growth of the Esko community, and today reflects the "melting pot" nature of the area as persons of other nationalities and heritage have moved in.

The story of St. Matthews begins in the late 1800's when Finnish immigrants began settling in Thomson Township. Being God-fearing people, they realized the need for worship together. After initial efforts at organizing a Lutheran congregation, the pioneers sent a call to the Rev. Erick V. Niemi, a minister who had settled in the Village of Thomson in 1900. He accepted the call and the congregation was officially organized on February 1, 1902.

Rev. E. V. Niemi, Erick Mattson, Sr., Kalle Pykkonen.John Lindquist was the first president of the congregation. Other officers were Erick Mattson, secretary; Henry Mattson, treasurer; and Alex Esko, Sakri Toivo (Tan), Henry Hyrkas and Kalle Hallback, trustees. Frank Hill, John Oman and Kalle Pykkonen were elected deacons.

The congregation worshipped in the homes of its members for the first year, and plans were made to build a church. In 1903, the 32 by 40 foot church was built and a cemetery established on four acres donated by Kalle Pykkonen. The site was at the intersection of the North Cloquet Road and Church Avenue, where the St. Matthews cemetery still exists. Members donated most of the labor and materials for construction, and Henry Ruikka, who owned a store in Thomson, was the source for nails and other supplies.

Heat for winter services was provided by a box stove placed in the middle of the floor. Wood for fuel was donated by members. Kerosene wick lamps, later replaced by gas lamps, provided the light. Wooden chairs, fastened together, took the place of pews. Kalle Pykkonen fed the stove with two-foot long logs during the winter. Should anyone too near the warmth of the stove lose interest and drift off to sleep during the sermon, Mr. Pykkonen would nudge them back to attention with the long handled collection bag.

The original church.Tradition called for the men to sit on the right side of the church and the women and children on the left. The men also communed first. It was not until the congregation joined the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran National Church on May 12, 1935, that women could vote in elections or other church matters.

Services were held once a month, but they lasted several hours. The singing was led by cantors who sat in a special box seat at the right side toward the front of the church. Erick Mattson Sr., who had been trained in Finland, was the head cantor.

Confirmands received their instruction from Pastor Niemi at his home in Thomson during early years. Later, confirmation was held for two weeks each June with classes running from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. The Bible History and the Catechism were used for text and memory work.

E.V. Niemi; the great fire

Pastor Niemi served the congregation from 1902 until 1947. Ordained in February 1901, this ambitious minister served some 23 congregations during his ministry. They were spread as far as Holyoke, the Iron Range, Superior and Maple, Wisconsin and Moose Lake. His wage from the Esko congregation was $8 a month, supplemented by donations of food and firewood. (It is also said that he augmented his wood supply by pulling deadheads from the St. Louis River which flowed near his home.)

During most of his tenure at the Esko congregation, Pastor Niemi was provided transportation to and from services. The "host" member picked him up at home by horse drawn vehicle - and later by car - and returned him home after the service. In the last few years, his son Robert drove him to church.

Records of the 1902 to 1918 period in the congregation's history are sparse and are mostly the result of memory. Official documents were kept at members' homes during that period and most were burned in the 1918 fire. God's miraculous power was shown, however, when the fire raged all around the area, but burned to within six inches of the church, leaving the walls untouched!

After the fire, the school district rented the church for a year at $50 a month. Classes were held there until the present schools were built.

Confirmation, 1935.Funeral procedure was to have visitation in the home. When the procession left the home and was sighted from the bell tower, Kalle Pykkonen would ring the church bell until the body was at the church yard. After the burial, the bell was tolled again for a short period. Whenever a church member died, it was the practice to ring the bell to let other members know of the death.

(In later years, the bell was replaced by the telephone. Eight rings on the party line informed people that someone had died or that another important thing had happened.)

One of the first organizations in the church was the Ladies Aid. Meetings were conducted in Finnish and were held in the homes until the church was ready. The organization existed prior to 1919 since minutes of 1919 indicate that the Board requested a loan from the women's group. The Ladies Aid raised funds by holding basket socials and bazaars where quilts, handwork and baked goods were sold. The money was used to repair and paint the church, and later to equip the kitchen.

Maintenance of the Finnish language was an important aspect to the pioneers of the Thomson Township area. Since English was undoubtedly encouraged in the public schools, children received instruction in Finnish during a six-week summer school taught by Perttu Harvala. He taught the "Aapinen" (equivalent to the ABC's) so the children could learn to read Finnish.

Interestingly, the congregation did not rely on a "pledge" system for operational costs or missions until the early 1950's. At one time, "dues" - about $3 per year and later $6 per family - were sought to meet the annual budget. A member was appointed to collect. Free will offerings were taken during Sunday services which were held once a month at first and later extended to twice a month.

The first church choir was organized in 1927 or 1928 by Rev. Richard Niemi, the son of the pastor. It met in the homes of members who had a piano or organ. Rehearsals were also held at the unheated church.

The 30's: remodeling

Congregation, 1939.In June 1935, the Esko congregation joined the American Finnish Evangelical Lutheran National Church. The following year, it hosted the NELC convention on June 28-30 at the Washington School. It was attended by some 2,000 persons. (The congregation also hosted the 65th annual NELC convention at the new church on June 19-23, 1963. It was the last NELC convention prior to merger with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.) With a membership of 110 communicants and 60 children, the congregation needed more room by 1938, so remodeling and expansion of the church building was undertaken. It was moved back 100 feet and a basement was constructed beneath it. The north end was extended 12 feet, and a new steeple was constructed to house a large brass bell, new pews were installed and a coal furnace was installed in the basement, Tile was placed on the floors, ceilings were lowered and new wiring and lighting - as well as good insulation - were installed.

The Thomson National Church Luther League was organized on July 5, 1944. Dues were 10 cents a month. Between 1944 and 1946, the League purchased a large painting of the ascension for the church which was hung above the altar. The painting was paid for from dues and supplemented by contributions from the Ladies Aid. One of the less glamorous functions the League served was to help the Ladies Aid with serving at meals and lunches -and to haul water to the kitchen since there was no water in the old church.

Confirmation, 1952, Rev. Lampela.The Luther League became the Walther League with the NELC-LC-MS merger, and activities included hay rides, skating, assistance with serving and Christmas caroling. The youth group's name has now been changed to Lutheran Youth for Christ.

Finnish continued to be the language of the regular services at the Esko congregation. Minutes of the annual meeting and the Board of Directors were kept in that language through 1951. English speaking members weren't neglected however, as Rev. Waldemar Thiele, pastor at Our Redeemer Lutheran, Cloquet, conducted services in English once or twice a month from 1946 to 1947. He also spoke during the Sunday School Christmas program.

Rev. Niemi retired in 1948 at the age of 80. Together with the Superior congregation, Esko sent a call to Rev. Eugene P. Lampela. Pastor Lampela had no car and lived in Superior, so Andrew Pykkonen brought him to church for services until the congregation collected enough money to buy him a car. Most committee meetings were held at his home in Superior.

A new name and growth

The congregation received a new name at the annual meeting on Jan. 1, 1950. On behalf of the Luther League, it was suggested the church be named either Bethlehem or St. Matthews Lutheran. The congregation favored St. Matthews by a vote of 27 to 7.

As more and more people moved into the community, the congregation and related activities and organizations also increased. It was becoming evident that there was need for a full-time pastor at the Esko congregation.

Plans to acquire a parsonage began in 1950 when Mr. and Mrs. William Jarvi were elected treasurer, and secretary treasurer, respectively, of a parsonage committee. Their beginning cash balance was $110.80. Until that time, the congregation had shared parsonage costs with the Superior congregation.

In 1952, the Board elected to purchase the Hjalmer Maunu house on Thomson Road in Esko for a price of $5,500. The action was approved at a voters' meeting on April 21. The parsonage fund held $2,000 - the result of fund raising by individuals, the Sunday School, Ladies Aid and the Luther League. The Board agreed to borrow an additional $4,000 in order to purchase the range and an amount of heating fuel with the house, as well as to cover related purchase expenditures.

In October 1953, the Ladies Aid became the Ruth Circle. Its function - to aid with material improvement to the church and spiritual growth for members through study of God's word - remained as strong as the past Ladies Aid tradition. It now holds a large group quarterly meeting and has eight small circles which meet monthly. On March 25, 1964, the women joined the Lutheran Women's Missionary League, a function of the Missouri Synod.

Through countless fund raising efforts, including serving for the meetings of the Esko Commercial Club, the women have equipped the kitchen, bought carpeting and other equipment for the new church basement, supported various synodical projects, served monthly coffee hours at Nopeming and provided faithful service for a myriad of other congregational functions.

Notes from the annual meeting of January 1954 indicate that St. Matthews had grown to 155 adult members and 147 children. The pastor's salary was $200 a month.

In January 1954, Pastor Lampela received and accepted a call to Bessemer and Wakefield, Michigan. The congregation had a vacancy from June to September when Rev. J. E. Nopola, then president of the NELC, was installed. During the interim, the congregation had voted to raise the pastor's wage to $235 a month plus payment of utilities and to give the Board the right to sell or trade the old parsonage for a larger home.

Confirmation, 1959, Rev. Nopola.In August, the congregation purchased the Raymond Korby house, also on Thomson Road, for $12,000. The old parsonage was later sold for $6,500. In 1955, an addition was built on the new parsonage to add a study and meeting area.

By 1955, communicant membership had reached 172 persons, and Sunday School enrollment numbered 170 children.

In January 1955, several men of the congregation met and decided to organize a church Brotherhood. Officers were elected and decisions were made to keep records of meetings and meet at least monthly for the purpose of furthering the work of the congregation. The NELC at that time had a very good program for Brotherhood organizations and was instrumental in the progress of the St. Matthews organization. The men of the Brotherhood were instrumental in such projects as acquiring a new organ in the former church (along with the Luther League), purchasing educational equipment, sponsoring family outings, purchasing a used truck for the building program, organizing work programs and providing labor and materials for construction and maintenance projects.

Still a year later, 35 new members had joined St. Matthews so that, with deaths and transfers, membership was 198 communicants and 183 Sunday School children. In his report to the annual meeting that January, Pastor Nopola noted that membership had doubled in the past four years.

Classes on the stairs

The rapid growth resulted in definite crowding at the church on the North Road. The Sunday School, especially, felt the effects, being forced to use even the basement stairway for classes. In June 1956, a committee of five men were selected to look into the possibilities for purchasing a lot in Esko for a building site.

The old church, late 1960's.That same year, at its May meeting, the Board discussed establishing a summer Bible camp at Island Lake near Moose Lake where some property had become available. Pastor Nopola said he would purchase the land for the congregation and hold it for an indefinite period. While the idea was approved by the Board, the property was never purchased by the church and it remained in the ownership of Pastor Nopola. He now lives there in retirement.

With 225 communicant members in January 1957, the congregation voted at its annual meeting to authorize the Board to look for and purchase lots "on the highway near Esko while they are still available." In May, the Board voted to recommend purchase of lots from Celia Mattinen to the June semi-annual meeting. The voters approved the purchase for $1,953.75.

A building committee was appointed in January 1958, and an additional lot was purchased for $500 in October. In January 1959, a fund raising committee was appointed.

Dr. Nopola had served as president of the NELC during most of his service at St. Matthews. In October 1958, he suffered a heart attack and, as a result, resigned the presidency effective in January 1959. In February, he received - and accepted a call to the NELC publishing house.

Rev. Esala, construction foreman Ed Wiita.Called to replace Dr. Nopola was Rev. H. P. Esala, who came to Esko in July 1959 from Ironwood, Michigan. He arrived just as the congregation embarked on the fund drive for the new church. The previous month, the building fund stood at $477.22 -by November it had reached $4,575.

Building the new

In January 1960 the congregation gave its approval to begin construction. A $75,000 loan was asked from the Church Extension Fund, and the following February, the Board and building committee also voted to ask a $60,000 loan from the Aid Association for Lutherans. Bids were accepted in March. Successful bidder was J. D. Harrold for general construction at $77,200. Other contracts were let for mechanical, $16,480; electrical, $10,525 and windows, $6.295.

Formal ceremonies for laying the cornerstone were held October 2,1960. In May 1962, the new building was dedicated, and on the following day the pulpit was dedicated in memory of Rev. E. V. Niemi. The following January, a congregational meeting voted formal approval for the Board to sell or tear down the old church.

In May 1963, the name of the church was officially recorded as St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church. The Board also discussed the merger of St. Matthews with Hope Lutheran, Munger and with the congregation at Grand Lake. Pastor Esala, who had been serving the two congregations, encouraged the action. The topic was again discussed in terms of merger with Hope in February 1964.

Not all was well with the St. Matthews congregation by the middle of 1964. There was disagreement among the membership, attendance at services had fallen off and expenses exceeded income. The Board was only able to pay interest on the principal of one of the church construction loans.

In June, Pastor Esala received a call to Fort William and a month later, announced the end of his term as pastor effective December 1, 1964. The Board accepted his resignation and recommended a peaceful release which was granted at a special congregational meeting in August. Pastor Esala later accepted a call to a congregation in Ft. Meyers, Florida.

That August, Mr. and Mrs. John Lintula met with the Board to discuss their plans for an elders' home on property across Elizabeth St. from the church. The Lintulas asked the church to sponsor the project which would enable them to incorporate. There being no monetary obligation, the Board recommended sponsorship to the congregation.

With the departure of Pastor Esala, the congregation began a 14-month period of pastoral vacancy. Early guidelines for the call committee in the fall of 1964 included possibilities of a joint parish call with the Cedar Valley congregation and notice of the vacancy which also existed at Hope Lutheran, Munger.

The first of nine calls was issued in November 1964. Hope asked the congregation to grant the pastor-elect permission to serve them also. The Board recommended the proposal, but before it came to be, the pastor's original congregation asked St. Matthews to grant a release from the call. The release was granted.

Meanwhile, Rev. Lewis Reinemann, pastor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Duluth, was asked to serve during the vacancy.

God's service continued

Calls were issued in January, February, April, June, July, August and October. In November 1965 a call was sent to the Rev. Paavo Frusti, New York Mills. He accepted and began his pastorate in Esko in March 1966.

During the vacancy, the Board began efforts toward consolidating the mortgage debt in an attempt to bring the monthly bills to a manageable sum. Refinancing of the mortgages was accomplished in July 1965 when loans of $63,000 and $24,000 were taken with the Aid Association for Lutherans and the Church Extension Fund, respectively. With that money, the previous $36,000 loan from AAL, an $18,000 CEF mortgage and a $30,000 NELC loan were paid off along with $1,000 owed CEF and $400 owed on fuel oil.

When Pastor Frusti arrived, he also began serving the small Cedar Valley congregation, and in June 1967, began serving the vacancy at Hope Lutheran.

In March 1969, Donald A. Pykkonen's bid to raze the old church was accepted by the Board. It was not removed until about two years later, however.

In November 1969, the deed was recorded on five lots at the Southwest corner of Elizabeth and John Streets, a gift from Mr. and Mrs. John Lintula. The property was to have been the site for their elders' home.

In January 1970, the congregation approved the purchase of dividers for the Sunday School rooms in the church basement and for purchase of three lots east of the church from Celia Mattinen. The dividers were purchased with a previously established memorial fund plus a no interest loan from an anonymous member. The lots were needed to expand the parking lot.

While cooperation and joint programs with sister congregations had been practiced by St. Matthews since the early 1960's, it was not until 1970 that the congregation formally embarked on such an endeavor.

In September 1969, several congregations from Esko, Grand Lake, Scanlon, Cloquet and Wrenshall were represented at a meeting to discuss possible team ministries. The outgrowth was a request from Hope Lutheran, Munger and St. John's Lutheran, Wrenshall, that they be allowed to join with St. Matthews in a team ministry.

On toward tomorrow

After several meetings for discussion, a two-year trial team ministry was proposed between the Esko, Munger and Wrenshall churches. Munger and Wrenshall had agreed to pay the salary and expense of the second pastor. The St. Matthews congregation unanimously agreed to support the concept.

Rev. Richard Collin, a recent graduate of the seminary, accepted the call and came to the team ministry in July 1971. After six months, the program was described as a fine cooperative effort with pastors Frusti and Collin sharing duties at the three churches and complementing each other in certain areas of specialty.

In March 1973, St. Matthews officially ended its participation in the team ministry, as the other two congregations appeared to have grown strong enough to support a minister on their own. Pastor Collin continued to serve the two for about one and a half years before accepting a call to Michigan.

In the spring of 1976, St. Matthews again agreed to lend support to Hope by providing $100 a month toward a vicar's salary while Hope provided housing and the remainder of the salary. John Beck began serving the vicarage that fall, preaching at Hope Lutheran, as well as working, particularly with youth, at St. Matthews.

St. John's, meanwhile, began a similar arrangement with Our Redeemer Lutheran of West Duluth.

Sunday School class, Rev. Frusti, 1977.In April 1974 the St. Matthews congregation voted to sell its parsonage as Pastor Frusti had purchased the Robert Bergstedt home north of the parking lot on Elizabeth Ave. The parsonage sale was completed that summer and proceeds were used to pay the remaining balance on the Sunday School divider loan, the Church Extension Fund mortgage, an outstanding pledge to Lutheran Social Services and sundry small debts. The balance of the funds were placed in interest bearing certificates.

In December 1975 the congregation elected to purchase a new pipe organ. A committee of members had investigated possible organs and recommended an instrument made by the Moeller Pipe Organ Company at an approximate cost of $30,000. The organ was installed in the fall of 1976. Pledges brought more than $20,000 toward the purchase cost by January 1977. The balance was borrowed from the parsonage fund with the understanding that memorials and other organ contributions would be used to repay that fund.

In December 1976, Pastor Frusti received and accepted a call to serve a dual parish in Quimby and rural Marcus, Iowa. He announced that he would begin the new pastorate in February 1977, following St. Matthews' 75th anniversary observance. The congregation also began consideration to purchase his home as a parsonage.

Faithful servants

Pastors
Rev. E. V. Niemi, 1902-1948
Rev. E. P. Lampela, 1948-1954
Rev. J. E. Nopola, 1954-1959
Rev. H. P. Esala, 1959-1964
Rev. Lewis Reinemann (vacancy) 1965-1966
Rev. Richard Collin, 1971-1973
Rev. Paavo Frusti, 1965-1977

Congregation Presidents
John Lahti, 1919-1920
Frank Hill, 1921-1923
Matt Koski, 1924-1943
William Mattson, 1944-1952
Emerth Nynas, 1953-1959
Rolland Huffinan, 1960-1963
Richard Warren, 1964-1965
Emerth Nynas, 1966-1967
Roger Aschmeyer, 1968-1969
Donald Pykkonen, 1970-1971
Richard Tan, 1972
Dale Liupakka, 1973-1976

Sunday School Superintendents
Rev. and Mrs. E. V. Niemi, 1928-1944
Mrs. Inez Knutila, 1944-1946
Edna Nynas, 1947-1956
Mrs. J. E. Nopola, 1957-1959
Donald Pykkonen, 1959-1962
A. L. Winterquist, 1962-1966
Richard Warren, 1966-1968
Robert Vukelich, 1969-1970
Melvin Carlson, 1970-1972
Judy Uran, 1972-1974
Barbara and Roland Lovstad, 1974-1975
Carol Liupakka, 1975-1977

Choir Directors
Richard Niemi
Mrs. Ailie Mattson
Mrs. Inez Knutila
Mrs. J. E. Nopola
Mrs. H. P. Esala
Donald Pykkonen
Mrs. Alene Tamminen
Gary Schmidtke

Organists
Helen Hill-Myrmel
Elaine Koski
Verna Ekholm
Sylvia (Niemi) Isaacso
Esther Mannila
Carol (Nynas) Wiitane
Diane Klosner
Mrs. H. P. Esala
David Jarvi
Donald Pykkonen
Mrs. John Lintula
Carol Nygren
Judy Uran
Eileen Johnson
Susan Pykkonen

Anniversary committee
75th Anniversary Committee
General Chairperson: Carol Liupakka
Booklet Editor: Roland Lovstad

Services and Programs
Donald Pykkonen, chairperson
Rev. Paavo Frusti
Gary and Afton Schmidtke
Dale Liupakka

Correspondence
Duane Kivisto, chairperson
Vi Kivisto
Robert and Eileen Johnson
Gloria Poutinen
Clarence and Sylvia Isaacson
Delores Bohren
Norman Tan

Publicity
Marlys Kilen, chairperson
Melvin Carlson
Ailee Kiheri
Roland Lovstad

Food Preparation and Meal Planning
Marilyn Pykkonen, co-chairperson
Judy Uran, co-chairperson
Dorothy Frusti
Marilyn Murphy

Janitorial Services
Harold Hyde
William Jarvi

Slide and Display Presentation
Edna Mattson, chairperson
Michael Mattson
Helmi Tan
Barbara and Roland Lovstad
Vicar John Beek

Clean-up, Spruce-up
David Lindstrom, chairperson
Richard Anderson
Eino Lahti
Leslie Kesti
Richard Okerlund

Finance
Robert Vukelich, chairperson
Roland Uran
Robert Murphy
Pat Vukelich

Decorations
Carol Wiitanen, chairperson
Darlene Okerlund
Shirley Eckman

History
Emerth and Edna Nynas, chairpersons
Sigrud and William Mattson
Edna and Eric Mattson
Saima and Waino Juntti
Helmi Tan
Faye and Ted Lindquist
Hilma Seikkula.

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© St. Matthews Lutheran Church

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