Our Savior’s roots go back to 1856. Pastor H. A. Stub, of Coon Prairie, came to the area and established four congregations, seeking to serve the large number of Norwegian immigrants who settled here.
One of the congregations, the La Crosse Valley Lutheran Church, was part of the Synod Lutheran Society (Scandinavian). The congregation was located in what was known as Larson Coulee, northwest of West Salem on County M where it meets Gills Coulee Road. The first trustees of the congregation were Gunnerius Simenson Aanrud, Christian Larson Hulberg, and Jens Christofferson Stammerud.
La Crosse Valley Lutheran Church was served by a number of pastors over the following years, including:
H. A. Stub (1856-1861)
Laur Larsen (1861-1862)
Johannes Frich (1862-1872)
Wollert Frich (1872-1882)
Otto C. Hjort (1882-1887)
U. C. S. Hjermsted (1887-1903)
Olaf Turmo (1903-1909)
Ole Ottersen (1909-1918)
Meanwhile, in 1885 another congregation, Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church was formed, as a member of the Confederation Lutheran Society (Scandinavian), and affiliated with the United Norwegian Lutheran Church. The Rev. Rasmus Anderson served as the first pastor of the congregation. Salem purchased the old Presbyterian church building in the Lake Neshonoc village site, just north of present day West Salem for $229.25. In 1892 the congregation moved the building to the present North Leonard Street site.
Pastors serving Salem included:
Rasmus Anderson (1885-1911)
Louis Marvick (1911-1913)
Ole Ottersen (1913-1918)
On February 2, 1918 the two congregations merged to form Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, a member of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America (later the Evangelical Lutheran Church). Part of the merger agreement was that any new church building would be built in West Salem. As Pastor Ottersen was pastor of both congregations, he was called as pastor of the new merged congregation.
In 1920 a new church building was constructed, using materials from the two former buildings, along with new materials. The cost of the building was $25,000, and it was dedicated July 10, 1921. That church building continues to serve as the worship space for Our Savior’s.
Since materials from both buildings were reused, and as one of the buildings had originally been the Presbyterian church building, one might say that the new structure – and congregation – was an “ecumenically recycled congregation!”
Pastor Ottersen served the merged congregation until his retirement in 1942, spending 33 of his 50 years in ministry in West Salem.
Since Pastor Ottersen, Our Savior’s has been served by a variety of pastors, including:
C. T. Paulson (1942-1945)
O. T. Haaland (1945-1949)
Joyce R. Ranum (1949-1954)
Richard L. Holleque (1954-1960)
Walter E. Ekeren (1960-1966)
Clarence A. Brauer (1966-1987)
Adam Meidinger (Interim – 1987-1988)
J. David Bersagel (1988-2011)
Mitzi Miyamoto (1997-2005)
Martha Hampton (2006-2009)
Melinda Melhus (2009-2010)
Roger Grow (Interim – 2011-2012)
Jonathan M. Schmidt (2013 – )
Jean R. Schmidt (2013 – )
From 1918 to 1954, Our Savior’s shared a pastor with the congregations in Burns Valley and Mindoro. By 1954 the congregation had grown to have its own pastor. In 1997 the congregation responded to continued growth in both the congregation and community by adding a second pastor to the staff. Pastor Mitzi (1997) was the first Associate Pastor, followed by Pastors Martha (2006), Melinda (2009), and Jean (2013).
In 2011, Pastor Bersagel announced his retirement, and the congregation welcomed Pastor Roger Grow, who led the congregation for almost two years as an interim. In October of 2012, the congregation called a clergy couple – Pastors Jonathan and Jean Schmidt, who began their work at Our Savior’s January 1, 2013.
Originally, Our Savior’s held two worship services – Sunday morning in Norwegian, and Sunday evening in English. In time, the Norwegian service ended and the English service moved to Sunday morning. In 1957 a second service was added on Sunday morning, and in 2001 a Saturday service was added. Currently, the average worship attendance of over 250 is fairly evenly divided between the three worship services.
Several times over the years both growth in numbers and the changes in ministry required new facilities. In 1956 a parish education unit and the current chancel in the sanctuary were added at a cost of $110,000. In 1991 additional space for fellowship and a parking lot were added at a cost of about $600,000. A far cry from the $229 paid for the old Presbyterian church building 100 years earlier!
In 2015 a building adjacent to the parking lot was acquired and demolished to provide for additional parking. In 2017 the church building underwent some remodeling and refreshing. At the same time the parsonage was sold, with a portion of the back of the parsonage lot retained to provide for a play area for kids and youth, and other ministry building activities.
But Our Savior’s is not, and never has been, about the building. The core of congregational life at Our Savior’s is ministry in many forms. That ministry has changed over the years as the needs of the community have changed.
- Music ministry over the years has included string quartets, adult and children choirs, organists, and others. A current favorite is the S.O.S. (Saints of Our Savior’s) Band, which for a number of years has led worship once a month.
- Education has always been important – from Sunday School to Bible School, from Confirmation to Adult Bible studies (such as the Bethel Series). A big part of the education program has been the growth of Wednesday afternoon and evening programming for 6-9th graders. Over the past decade, confirmation classes of 25-35 have been the norm, reflecting the influx to the congregation and the community of young families.
- Youth ministry for many years revolved around Luther League. In more recent years, a large number of youth have been involved in summer mission trips. Recent mission trips have been to North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Atlanta, Minneapolis. Most recently the mission trip was to Tennessee. Trips have included up to 40 youth and adults participating.
- A number of women’s ministries have been a part of the life of the congregation. The Ladies Aid, then the Women’s Missionary Federation, is now known as the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (WELCA), and is divided into several circles. A sewing group and a prayer shawl ministry have also developed over the years.
- Dinners have also been important to the fellowship of the congregation. In the past years the “Norwegian Dinner,” featuring lutefisk and meatballs have served over 800, and the community wide free corn roast in August have both become big parts of congregational life.
- A Mission Endowment Fund receives most of any unrestricted bequests. The Fund, with over $300,000 in assets, provides over $12,000 of outreach every year, making a difference in the lives of people in our community and around the world.
- For the past several years a summer lunch program for children has been offered, providing a balanced meal two days a week during the summer months. Meals are served at parks in West Salem, and while its an “Our Savior’s” thing, lots of community support, including support from other congregations, has made it work.
- Our Savior’s hosts the community Care and Share Food Pantry. It’s not ours; it belongs to the community. Nonetheless, it is housed in our building, and lots of Our Savior’s people are a part of the work.
Over the years, while pastoral leadership has been important, the congregation has still been grounded in the work of God’s Holy Spirit in all of the baptized. In the 1960’s a number of parish workers served the congregation. More recently several youth workers have been a part of staffing.
Meanwhile lots of others continue the ministries of the congregation! Our Savior’s has, over the years been blessed with a long line of faithful leaders. Council presidents and members have shared in the leadership that goes back to the first trustees of the congregation. Others have shared their gifts as committee chairs and committee members, sometimes on standing committees, and other times on ad hoc groups. Still others have taught, led music, and planned events. This congregation has thrived because God has worked in the lives of ordinary people to do the extra-ordinary work of Jesus in our midst.
Women too have been a vital part of congregational life and leadership. Women’s groups have always been an important part of the day-to-day work of the congregation. In time the inclusion of women in the leadership of the congregation as a whole was recognized as a great gift. In 1960 women were given the right to vote, and women soon moved into positions of leadership in the congregation. Leona Gilbertson was the first woman to serve as president of the congregation.
People from Our Savior’s have also heard God’s call to move to new ventures. Most recently Bonnie Klos was ordained (June, 2015), and serves a congregation in Port Huron, Michigan. In years past Norman Nelson, Kenneth Eggen, and Dewey Bjorkman also heard God’s call and responded faithfully, moving on from Our Savior’s to serve God in other places as ordained pastors. Our Savior’s has also served as a training site for pastors with Mitzi Miyamoto and Chad Brucklacher spending their internship year in this congregation.
As times have changed Our Savior’s has moved forward. From the days of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America (later the Evangelical Lutheran Church), the congregation joined in the formation of the American Lutheran Church (1960), and then the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1988), as a member of the La Crosse Area Synod.
The Covid pandemic provided new challenges and new opportunities for mission in a broken and vulnerable world. We continued to provide food ministries, and outreach to the community, partnering with a variety of agencies. We welcomed new members and made new disciples, while embracing new technologies (what a blast to see a bunch of 80+ Bible study participants embrace the technology of Zoom!) Realizing new technology was needed, the congregation moved forward to upgrade the tech in the sanctuary so worship could be virtual, not just during the pandemic, but into the years ahead. Times have changed, but the buzz of the gospel remains!
Today Our Savior’s has over 1,200 members, with over 250 in worship on an average Sunday. We still have our problems, challenges, weaknesses, and faults, but we also have Jesus! We live in the midst of a real world, confronting real challenges. The answers are not always easy, or even apparent, but for over 150 years, the gifts of God have sustained this community and will continue to do so. In that we have faith!