Maybe it was just good planning, but maybe there was a little divine intervention, too. Whatever it was, the members of Highview Christiania Lutheran Church are celebrating this weekend.
The little church on a hill in Eureka Township has been placed on the National Registry for Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior. It's a recognition the 152-year-old congregation has earned, but it almost didn't happen - more than once.
The process to be placed on the National Registry for Historic Places is a long, complicated one, as the congregation learned. It involves a lot of research, documentation and patience. Not to mention, a little bit of luck.
Construction of the current church began in 1877 and concluded in 1878. Church historian Glen Shirley, who did much of the research for the designation, said the building's design is not uncommon. In tracing the history, Shirley found a picture of a nearly identical church from Norway. He also found a couple of similarly designed churches in the United States. All of them, including Highview, had roots in the Norwegian Lutheran Free Church.
The congregation added onto the building over the years. A gathering space adjacent to the worship space was originally constructed with a flat roof, but back in the late 1980s, the congregation decided to add a roof with a pitched point, making the pitch match that of the church.
Then, just a few years ago, the building was in need of modest repairs, both inside and out. The question came up: go with cheaper materials and give the building a more modern appearance, or spend the time and money to maintain its historic condition. Hands down, the decision was to do take the historic preservation route.
Little did anyone know, every time the congregation chose to make alterations to the church building, they were setting the course for this designation.
Shirley spent two years or more researching the church's history. The designation is not only based on the building, but its relevance to the community and that building's place in history.
When Norwegian immigrants originally settled in this area, they all worshiped together. Eventually, though, differing opinions about the role of clergy and congregants forced a separation of the Empire Lutherans. Christiania Lutheran Free Church (Highview) separated from the Christiania Lutheran Church, although the two buildings were at one time just down the road from each other.
"This church was special because it was an example of that conflict," Shirley explained.
Through his research, Shirley also learned that founders of learning institutions like Augsburg College, St. Olaf College and Gustavus Adolphus College could be traced back to the local Norwegian congregations.
Eventually, Shirley had found all he could. He needed help to put it together. Coincidentally, the congregation had celebrated its 150th anniversary right around that time, and had raised a couple of thousand dollars to be used for the church. Coupled with an anonymous gift of $1,500, the congregation was able to hire a consultant to help put the package together.
"We thought, we're going to have one shot at this," Rev. Chris Beckman said. "It just seemed like the right thing to do."
The consultant, Thomas Zahn, helped pull all of the pieces together. And, he was there to answer questions when Highview Christiania was placed on the agenda of the Minnesota Historical Society. Buildings must get state confirmation before receiving national recognition. There were presentations, slide shows and architects. It was more complicated than anyone expected.
"We thought it was going to be more of a slam-dunk," Beckman said.
But in the end, years of luck paid off. On July 22, 2010, the Highview Christiania congregation received word the church had been placed on the National Registry for Historic Places.
They recently received the 30-plus pound plaque, and last week, a couple of volunteers installed it on the front of the building. This weekend, they'll have a celebration before their 10:30 a.m. worship service.
It is rare for a church still in operation to receive the designation, Shirley said.
But then again, Highview Christiania just seems catching breaks all over the place. Just how lucky? Well, had the gathering hall been just 18 inches closer to the road in front, it would not have qualified.
Maybe there was some divine intervention, after all.