FARGO – When Grace Lutheran Church, then a German-speaking community, began meeting officially as a church body in 1898, it had to appeal to neighbors for worship, borrowing space from the nearby Swedish Baptist and Norwegian Lutheran Free churches.
But in 1905, the community happily celebrated its new church at Fourth Street and First Avenue North, a structure costing $4,631.73. It relocated in the early 1930s to its current spot at 821 5th Ave. S., welcoming St. Peter’s Lutheran Church for the Deaf to share its home for its weekly worship.
The amalgamation of cultures testifies to the Christian landscape of Fargo at the turn of the century, mainly comprising European immigrants. Though English eventually became the dominant language in all, the feeling at Grace Lutheran has always been one of home and family, say its members.
“We’re small but mighty,” says Jan Brelje, who’s currently involved in community outreach. “We try to be a friendly church with a very small-town kind of feel.”
But in the last couple years, the community has experienced some surprising growth, she notes, with younger couples and families joining them, seemingly searching out caring relationships and support like those in their hometown churches.
Currently, the community comprises about 300 people, with varying levels of attendance at their Wednesday and Sunday services.
Family in the truest sense
Few in the 150 years of history of Grace Lutheran, however, probably understand the reality of “church as family” as intimately as Corey Isaak.
Former president of the congregation, current trustee, and member for over 40 years, Isaak was schooled at the connected Grace Lutheran parochial school through eighth grade, and remained close to the community even while in college at North Dakota State University.
It was during those young-adult years in the early 2000s when tragedy happened, causing the church to become not just a place to go on Sundays, but a vital healing force in his life. Both of Isaak’s parents died suddenly within two months of each other, he shares, and “(Grace) became my sole support system.”
With emotion, he recalls how, after his mother’s death, his former junior-high teacher Marlene Hanson accompanied him to the funeral home. “She drove me there, and drove me home,” he says. And on the way back, asked if she could be his “acquired mother.”
“I was assimilated into her family after that,” Isaak says, noting that Hanson had three children who were mostly grown by then. When she moved closer to one of them, he bought her house in Moorhead. “It shows how intertwined God is in all of this.”
By his early 20s, Isaak jumped into the role of elder, and was leading a Bible study for men; “men who had been through far more life than I,” he says. “Not to discredit what I’d been through.”
In the various roles he’s gladly taken on, he says, he brings the Biblical adage with him: “Steel sharpens steel,” noting the need we have for one another as we walk out our life in Christ.
In his father’s footsteps
Jon Smelser became acquainted with Grace Lutheran in 2001 when his father, the Rev. Todd Smelser, became a pastor there, serving until 2005. “He passed away from lung cancer, so my mother and my sisters and I stayed around.”
His life has been centered on Grace Lutheran ever since. Smelser met his wife, Megan, at church, their two children attend Grace Lutheran School, and he currently serves as director of church ministry.
“My main function is to help the pastor (the Rev. David Suelzle), and sometimes, I’ll fill in for him—he’ll leave a sermon for me to read.” Smelser also oversees the church’s livestream, directs the choir and helps teach Sunday school and confirmation.
He calls following in his father’s footsteps through church ministry a blessing. “It’s a congregation and community I’ve grown to love very dearly,” he says. “My father used to end every Sunday by telling the congregation that he loved them, but more importantly, that they were loved by the Lord. I have since come to know how he felt and what he meant by that.”
Smelser echoes the sentiment that Grace “shines at being a family.” “We’re not a large church, but our main goal is to hear God’s word, receive the sacraments and the forgiveness of sins. And it’s nice to do that within a family setting.”
That means celebrating regular life together, too. “There’s a group of us that gets together to watch Bison games. It’s very close-knit,” he says, noting that it’s also “marvelous” to see younger couples joining the church. “We may not have the big programs as some other congregations, but we’re a church that deeply cares about its members.”
Then and now
Audrey Nitschke, Smelser’s mother-in-law, has been a member of Grace Lutheran for some 73 years. Her mother was brought up in the same tradition as Grace, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, in Richfield, Minnesota.
She recalls the hardship of making it to church every Sunday. “Mom made sure we all got to church, and even when dad had to work on a weekend, she’d be packing up all five of us kids,” to get there on time.
They always sat “third pew from the back on the lefthand side,” eventually moving pews when her mom transitioned to a wheelchair. “Now that the kids are grown up, and Mom passed away, we’ve graduated to at least the middle of the church,” she laughs.
In those days, she says, “Everyone assumed that you went to church,” noting that a mixed marriage was when a Catholic married a Lutheran. “My dad passed away shortly after we got married, and he was probably relieved I met another Lutheran, and even one who was Missouri Synod.”
Audrey remembers the original church location, situated near where a devastating tornado tore through the area in 1957. When she married Jim, originally from Moorhead, she coaxed him over to Fargo. “I was a Spud,” he jokes, “and had to jump the river to find my bride.”
For them, the community has been a binding force, supporting them in raising their family. They’ve both been active in ministry; Jim as chairman of the elders off and on, and Audrey, as a member of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, which helps keep the church vibrant.
Audrey was pulled in more recently to help organize the 125th-year celebration. “Well, my daughter volunteered me and a couple of my friends,” she says. “We’ll have events scattered throughout the year.”
The main one, “Generations of Praise,” will begin with a special service at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22, and is open to all.
Though she says the physical structure “isn’t overly decked with frills,” being “pretty much a straight-forward Lutheran church,” it encompasses beautiful stained glass windows, and has undergone several significant upgrades through the years, including a remodeling project in 1968 to enlarge the narthex; another in 1996 to incorporate an elevator; and, in 2016, the addition of an east-side corridor with a conference room and classroom space for Sunday school.
Brelje says she’s proud of the fact that the church “has always stood on God’s word, on what the Bible says to us,” recalling the significance of the Church’s name: grace. “For it is through grace that you have been saved; it’s a gift from God,” she says, quoting from Ephesians 2. “We rejoice in that!”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Jan. 13, 2023.]