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Historical Milestones [Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Olympia, Washington]

John W. Unis

Fifty years ago a small number of Swedish-speaking immigrants from Finland banded together and started the history of the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.

The first activities centered in the homes of the pioneers. Itinerant pastors under the auspices of the Mission Board of the Columbia Conference, Augustana Synod, made periodic visits to the community and ministered to the spiritual needs of the group. Services were held in private homes and conducted in the Swedish language. The mother-tongue was used .in full or in part until 1930.

Early History

In 1904 a ladies' aid society was organized with its chief aim that of gathering funds for a church building. This marks the beginning. It was therefore a group of women who took the first step toward starting the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. As early as the close of 1906 the society had in its treasury a sum of $519.14.

A strong and healthy spirit prevailed within the society from the very beginning. When other organizations came into being later and lost their ambition and strength, the Ladies' Aid lived on and continued its good work of supporting the church financially. The records indicate that throughout the years it was known at various times as, Ladies' Aid, Sewing Circle, and Sylvia Society. It is noteworthy that mrs. Louise Sandberg, the only living charter member of the church, was one of the organizers of the Ladies' Aid. She is still a member of the congregation and active in the Women's Guild.


On September 20, 1905 the congregation was organized as the Swedish-Finnish Lutheran Church at a meeting held in the crypt of the St. John's Episcopal Church, Ninth Avenue and Washington Street, Olympia. C, E. Frisk, pastor of the First Lutheran Church, Tacoma, served as chairman. Theological student S. D. Hawkins was the recording secretary. The following twenty nine persons... Nearly all of them born in Finland, signed their names as charter members:

John J. Adams

    Maria Backlund

Mrs. Katharina Adams

    Emma Holm

Maria Adolfia Ingman

Hanna Holm

John Erickson

John Johnson

Henry Johnson

Mrs. Anna Johnson

Mrs. Anna Lovisa Erickson

Andrew Sandberg

Mrs. Sanna Brita Johnson

Maria Lovisa Sandberg

Ida Jackson

Joel J. Sjoblom

Anna Erickson

Brita Kajsa Sjöblom

Sofia Anderson

John Skaar

Anna Mattson

Mrs. Skaar

Maria Johnson

John Anderson

Ida Erickson

Mrs. Augusta Anderson

Maria Blom

Sofia Rank

Maria Anderson

The names of John and Greta Martinson, and others, are mentioned among the early pioneers. However, they are not listed as charter members in the church records. In 1911 the Martinson family presented the church with a beautiful communion set that was deeply appreciated. A few years later the same family gave the congregation a fine reed organ for use in the sanctuary.

The first pastor

Following his ordination in 1906, S. D. Hawkins was called to the Olympia church as its first pastor. The local Church agreed to pay seventy-five dollars a year toward his salary. The amount was raised to one hundred dollars in 1907. Some additional support came from the Columbia Conference Mission Board. Membership dues were twenty-five cents per month.

The first services were held in the homes. Later, they were conducted in Rabeck's Hall at East Fourth Avenue and at St. Paul's Lutheran Church (alc) located on the corner of Fifth and Adams. The congregation was not incorporated until March 28, 1906.

During this first year the membership decreased to eighteen communicants. There were seventeen children enrolled in Sunday School. The first Children's Christmas program was given at st. Paul's Lutheran Church. It is also interesting to note that the Tacoma District, now Mt. Rainier, held a mission meeting in Olympia from November 6 through November 8, 1906 at which time the Lord's supper was celebrated.

The church treasurer's report for 1906 was as follows:



in the treasury, Jan. 1, 1906

$ 1.25

membership dues and gifts




from the Ladies' Aid






salary (pastor)

$ 75.00

rent for hall and church


church record book




assessment ten-cents per member for Augustana College




conference treasury


conference mission


balance in the treasury





Note:  1906 total budget   $  176.27
1955 total budget   $   35, 015.00

Pastor Hawkins concluded his services in 1907. The congregation had no pastor then until 1909 when Axel M. Green, pastor of the Emanuel Lutheran Church of South Tacoma, included the Olympia church in his pastorate. In two of his annual reports to the church, 1912 and 1913, pastor Green wrote "divine services have as a rule been held the first thursday evening of each month." He served the congregation until june 1915. He was succeeded by Catechist D. Westman (lay preacher) who was in charge for a few months. Theological student Arnold Thoren also served the congregation for a short period of time.

The Original Building

It was during the first decade that the church property at Fifth and Adams was acquired. The lot was bought December 26, 1907 for the sum of $700. 00. In 1909 the congregation purchased the old presbyterian church building then located at the present site of the Sears- Roebuck store. The building was moved to Adams Street and remodeled. Originally erected by the presbyterians in 1862, the year after the beginning of the civil war, it is considered today the oldest church building still in use in the State of Washington.

Dedicated with festive services on Wednesday, July 20, 1910, the building has been enlarged and improved from time to time. A generous donation of voluntary labor' and materials for church construction has been a tradition among members and friends through the fifty years. In the church report for January 4, 1912 is recorded the following, "all the men of the congregation are requested to give two and one-half days labor or equivalent in wages at the rate of $2.00 a day or $5.00 in cash." (Labor in 1912 was worth 20 cents an hour, ten hour day.) Records list the names of seven men who contributed. Henry Johnson, John Erickson. John Adams, Hans Hokenson, Charles Ahlstrom, C. Jacobson And Andrew Sandberg. These men repaired the church roof.

Although many contributed a great deal of work, the nam e of one man in particular stands out as a shining light. John Johnson was the "handy man" of that day. For many years he worked as superintendent for the Olympia Street Car Company, taking care of the streetcars, the tracks and the power plant at Tumwater. He also found time to care for the church property and fix anything that needed to be repaired. Ainor Backman has been his counterpart in recent years.

Second Decade

The next ten year period was ushered in toward the close of 1916 when pastor John Truedson arrived with his family to begin a two year pastorate. Pastor Truedson served also Aberdeen, Hoquiam, South Bend, Ethel, Rochester, Shelton And Harstine Island.

A beautiful oak altar and pulpit were purchased while he was pastor. The first confirmation service in the history of the church was held by Pastor Truedson in 1917, the class confirmed was made up of five members, namely, Esther Adams (Mrs. John Gregg), Irene Erickson (Mrs. Fred Hepp), Ida Erickson (Mrs. Ray Hays), Victor and Vivian Johnson.

Pastor Herman Anderson followed Pastor Truedson and served the congregation from 1918 until august 1922. He was also in charge of the congregations at Rochester and South Bend. The Women's Missionary Society was organized in 1920 during his ministry, with a membership of 25 "older" and 27 "younger" members. He also started a Luther League in 1921. It was during the same year that the congregation changed its name to The Evangelical Lutheran Bethesda Church.

Third Decade

On october 1, 1922, Pastor Claes Thunberg accepted a call from the congregation to become its next pastor. He also served the congregations at Rochester and South Bend and made occasional visits to Bethel in South Tacoma. His services continued uninterrupted until October 1, 1930, a period of eight years, the longest for a resident pastor up to that date. When Pastor Thunberg arrived, the congregation raised its contribution towards the pastor's annual salary to $360, the following year it was increased to $450, and in 1928 to $660. During his ministry, additional equipment was acquired and further improvements made to the church property. A brotherhood of seven men, a Junior Mission Band and the Concordia Society were established as new auxiliaries within the church. The congregation also grew from 50 to 128 communicant members.

Fourth Decade

Following his ordination in june 1930, Elmer M. Johnson assumed the duties of pastor on October 1 st of the same year. In 1931 an all-English program was adopted that proved a turning point in the church's history. The same year the Northwestern District of the American Lutheran Church relinquished its mission work in olympia in favor of the Augustana congregation . The constituency of the congregation rapidly changed from a largely Scandinavian background to one of many nationalities and Lutheran Synodical bodies. The name was again changed in 1935, this time from Bethesda, to the present name Gloria Dei Evangelical Lutheran Church. It is Olympia's only Church of the National Lutheran Council. What had once been a struggling mission field now became a congregation of stability and progress. When Pastor Johnson arrived in 1930 mission aid was received to the extent of $1500 annually. On January 1,1943 Gloria Dei became a self-sustaining parish with a membership of 223 communicants.

In 1934, at a total cost of $11, 000. 00, the church building was completely remodeled and a two-story parish building added under the supervision of the late Olaf Anderson, building contractor. A seven-stop pipe organ with chimes was purchased. For future expansion, property adjacent to the church was acquired in 1940, at a cost of $2150. From The St. Paul's Lutheran Church. (The church site and building at Fifth and Adams was sold to the Salvation Army for $27,500 in 1950.)

Pastor Johnson continued the work until September 1944. During his ministry Gloria Dei and the church at Rochester formed one pastorate. This multiple parish was discontinued with the arrival of the next pastor. The fourth decade in Gloria Dei's history ended shortly after Pastor Johnson's leaving when a vacancy ensued for approximately one year. Pastor E. Arthur Larson of Tacoma then served as vice pastor.

Fifth Decade

The last ten years are filled with growth and expansion. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Elmer Johnson, Pastor Richard J. Bingea came also directly from the seminary, to continue building on the fine foundation laid down by Pastor Johnson. It was not long before his vision of re-location and a new church unit became known. Under his leadership the congregation continued to grow. In 1950 the membership increased to 450 with more than 200 children enrolled in the Sunday School. Financial and building committees were formed and out of his vision came the new Gloria Dei (to the Glory of God) Church.

The New Church

On Sunday, April 15, 1951 Gloria Dei dedicated its new edifice and church property. The building was designed by J. Emil Anderson And Ralf Decker. Seattle architects, who planned a functional unit, carrying out simple lines in modified modern architecture.

The new church of brick veneer and structural steel construction is built entirely above ground, comprising a floor area of 14,200 square feet. The sanctuary pews will seat 272, with accommodations for 35 in the choir loft and 75 in the balcony. A memorial chapel, employing the old church chancel appointments and seating 100, provides a fitting memorial shrine and also serves as an over-flow room.

Individual. Sunday School rooms are provided in the parish hall and on the second floor of the parish building. A modern kitchen is conveniently located next to the parish hall. The latter will seat 250. Excellent administrative facilities, such as pastor's study, church offices, fireproof vault and a library are located in the parish building. Among many memorial gifts are a set of Maas Cathedral chimes and a rebuilt pipe organ with a beautiful new console. The carrillon chimes played from the organ can be heard within a radius of a mile and a half when broadcast from the 75-foot copper and reinforced steel spire. The church also has a complete public address system.

Unique is the story of the building of the church. It was constructed at a cost of less than $150, 000. Including the six lots and the architects' fee. The construction was supervised by a committee of five men from the congregation, together with the pastor. This committee was entrusted with the general contracting for the building. The committee included John W. Unis, M.D., chairman, P. F. Skoog. Erick Bergquist, M. A. Lindeblom, Ainor Backman and Pastor Richard J. Bingea. In addition to the savings effected by the construction committee, a remarkable record of volunteer labor reduced the congregation's cash outlay. The volunteer labor included over 4300 hours of skilled and unskilled labor by members and friends, in addition to that given by the construction committee.

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held April 9, 1950 and construction began May 15. The cornerstone was laid on October 15, 1950 and on January 14, 1951 the congregation met for the first time in the parish hall to conduct its annual meeting. The first worship service in the new building was held on Sunday, March 4, 1951 and the church was dedicated Sunday, April 15, the same year. The present evaluation of the new church property and equipment, including a parsonage, is estimated at approximately one quarter of a million dollars with less than 15 percent indebtedness.

After eight years of continuous service, Pastor Bingea resigned on July 1, 1953 to accept a call from the board of American Missions. During his ministry not only was the beautiful new sanctuary and church building erected but the membership increased to 682 communicant and 1006 baptized members.

Additional Staff

L. B. McCullough and Lawrence Sundell, both students of the Augustana Theological Seminary, Rock Island, Ill., served their internships at Gloria Dei in 1953 and 1954, respectively. Pastor George Schwanenberg of Hoquiam served as vice pastor of the congregation until the arrival of pastor Arthur I. Anderson and family in March of 1954. On november 15, 1954, miss Evelyn Olson became the first full-time parish worker.

Under Pastor Anderson's leadership the congregation has continued to grow and prosper. A beautiful parsonage has been purchased at Butler Cove, adjacent to the Country Club, for the sum of $22, 000. A schedule of two morning worship services a Sunday, stepped-up youth activities with Interest Circles and youth choir, have been initiated. From the small beginning of 29 charter members in 1905, the membership has reached an all-time high of 717 communicant and 1165 baptized members in Septemper 1955. A progressive spirit of faith and cooperation is evident. We bespeak for Pastor Anderson and his family a long and fruitful ministry in Olympia.

The Jubilee Year

The Fiftieth Anniversary Year has been one of several highlights. For the first time in its history, Gloria Dei entertained. The Columbia Conference of The Augustana Church, April 19-23. On Sunday, August 21, at an impressive service held in the church Pastor Lawrence Carlson, first son of the congregation to enter the holy ministry, was commissioned, together with his wife, as a missionary to Formosa. The fall emphasisof the Jubilee Year includes anniversary festivities with former pastors and other friends in attendance. A sacred concert to be given by the Senior Choir later in the year, will be a fitting conclusion to our Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration.

Published in Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. Olympia, Washington. 1905-1955. 1955.

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