WIOTA – The Wiota Lutheran Church is celebrating 175 years of going strong during Wiota Church Heritage Weekend from Aug. 23-25.
The East Wiota Lutheran church is the oldest Norwegian Lutheran church still in use in America.
Chicago and Milwaukee were two destination points for the early Norwegian immigrants during the 1800s. Many heard about “Hamilton Diggings” in Southwest Wisconsin and traveled to seek employment as diggers, miners and smelters. “Hamilton Diggings”, also known as just “Hamilton” was later renamed Wiota.
The first known religious services were conducted in 1837. The first service was held in a stone house at the Five Corners, approximately one mile east of the present East Wiota Lutheran Church. From 1825-1843, the immigrants were without ordained pastors because the State Church of Norway were discouraging migration to America and were indifferent to the spiritual needs of their children in the new world. Laymen then conducted services in homes, schools and outdoors.
The first missionary pastor to minister to the Wiota pioneers was Claus Clausen, a Dane. While studying law in Denmark, he came in contact with a young man who had been converted. Clausen surrendered his life to Christ and found peace with God. Because of failing health, he went to Norway. He was much impressed by what he read and heard about Hans Nielson Hauge and planned to go as a missionary to Africa when his attention was called to the dire needs for teachers of the Norwegian immigrants. In October 1843, Clausen was ordained in Muskego. He traveled a wide area, which included Wiota.
A Letter of Call was issued by several small settlements in southwest Wisconsin, including Wiota, offering a minister’s salary of $300 besides a parsonage and 80 or 160 acres of land. It is said to have been initiated by Knud Knudsen, a blacksmith in Hamilton’s Settlement and a prominent immigrant from Drammen, Norway. Rev. J. W. C. Dietrichson accepted the call and came in 1844. As a missionary pastor, he came as a representative of the State Church of Norway.
Later in 1844, Rev. J. W. C. Dietrichson organized the Wiota Congregation, with Knud Knudsen as chairman. But between 1844-46, Wiota did not have a permanent pastor. After ties were severed with Clausen, the congregation realized they needed to go ahead and build a church. Preparations to building the church began in 1847 with land being cleared. On Feb. 7, 1851 they reorganized and incorporated. They chose the name Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church or Norsk Evangelisk Lutherisk Menighed, in Norwegian.
After 32 meetings the decision was reached to build the church in the present location. At first 40 acres of land were obtained from the school district, School District No. 2, and then again another 35 acres were deeded to the church on Feb. 14, 1853. It was recorded, “The church shall be started by the master mason on the 15th of April and shall be finished by the same by the 15th of June, 1851. The rest shall be completed by the 1st of August next.”
The church was built on voluntary donations then the total amount was divided equally among the congregation. The total amount was $933. Rock walls made up the total size of the church. Logs were hauled from a farm south of Woodford. The floor was laid in April and May 1854 for $4.
In 1851, the total congregation was around 200 or more of mostly farmers rather than miners. Pastor G. F. Dietrichson took over the parish from 1851-55. Then in January 1855, J.S. Munch accepted the call. He was the first full time pastor. It was about this time that the first parsonage was constructed on the 40 acres of land located south of Woodford. It was constructed of rock and cost $47.50. Two more parsonages were built in 1877 and 1962.
In 1867, renovations started at the East church to modernize it throughout the years. In the years to come, they rebuilt the altar, dug a basement for fellowship and to place a furnace, added more storage, built a kitchen, installed indoor plumbing and much more, going into the current year.
In 1885, people began to think of building another church because of the distance and mode of travel at that time. Often people had to walk many miles to attend worship services. With more people coming into the territory, there was also need for more space. A contract was accepted to build the church with a bid of $1,575.00. On July 1, 1889, a bell weighing 807 pounds was purchased from the McShane Company of Baltimore, Maryland, which cost $173.34. The building was dedicated on July 28, 1889.
Then during a freak snowstorm on Dec. 15, 1987, lightning destroyed the West Church. It was raining, snowing, blowing, and lightning. No one saw the fire due to the blowing snow. The Gratiot Fire Department happened to go by as they were called to a barn fire and tried to put the fire out. The bell was the only thing they saved. Plans had been underway for a Christmas celebration and members had been anticipating a Centennial Celebration of the West Wiota church for 1989.
After that great loss, members were praying for guidance on what to do next. In 1988 a survey was conducted on what types of buildings and locations would be considered for a new church. There were four options, which were adding to the East Church, building a new church at the West site, building at the parsonage site, or a smaller Memorial Building at the West site.
It was decided to build on the parsonage site and on April 21, 1991, the long-waited ground breaking ceremony took place just east of the parsonage in Wiota.
The months that followed were exciting as all the hopes and plans began to materialize. The total cost of the building was $639,073. On June 28, 1992, a formal dedication officially committed all the previous work, decision-making, and the completed building to furthering of God’s Kingdom.
To celebrate this wonderful filled history, the Wiota Lutheran Church will begin on Friday night, Aug. 23 with a picnic supper from 5:30-7:00 p.m. at the West Wiota Church Cemetery. Please bring a lawn chair. From 6:30-7:30 p.m. candles will be placed on the gravestones and a cemetery walk and storytelling will also take place. From 7:30-8:30 p.m. there will be a Hymn sing and reflections of the history of the church.
On Saturday evening, Aug. 24, the celebrations will take place at East Wiota Church where candles will be placed on gravestones and there will be a cemetery walk from 6:30-7:30 p.m. At 7:30 there will be a worship service featuring Norwegian folk tunes and some prayers in Norwegian.
Sunday, Aug. 25 will be the Sunday morning regular worship at Wiota Church from 9:30-10:30 a.m. A celebratory luncheon will follow the worship.
Make sure to take part in all of the events to help celebrate and remember the great 175 years of the Wiota Lutheran Church.