When there are so many serious stressful events that are happening in our country, such as COVID-19, a contentious presidential election, raging fires in California, Black Lives Matter protests, and devastating tornados and hurricanes on the horizon, it may seem strange to write about our church’s 125th anniversary; yet, anniversaries give churches an opportunity to reflect on God’s blessings and providence in past years, to celebrate God’s steadfast love in the present, and to be inspired to live courageously and generously into the future.
St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran was the first Swedish Lutheran Church established in Montana by the Augustana Synod in 1895 by a group of immigrants who desired a community to worship Christ, hear the gospel, and grow in faith and love as disciples of Christ.
First Lutheran Church, a German congregation, showed ecumenical hospitality, by allowing the congregants of St. John’s to worship in their church for the first nine years of its existence. First Lutheran and St. John’s held joint choir recitals and concerts at Christmas and Easter to share musical offerings with the community of Helena.
In 1904, a new church was built on 11th Avenue and Logan Street, Pastor Peter Fair, who served for 30 years as pastor, is said to have preached and greeted folks from parsonage porch near the sanctuary.
We Lutherans have not been very demonstrative in our public witnessing; in fact, we are “militantly shy’ about it; yet St. John’s, by the love and grace of God, grew and by 1950 moved into its present building on 1000 Helena Avenue. The church is located across from the Helena Middle School. It’s the yellow church with the big white steeple pointing up to God and big red doors opening up to neighbors.
We are thankful that God has richly blessed us with an amazing pipe organ and a beautiful grand piano. Music has always been a cherished gift that St. John’s encourages and supports in our community, opening up our church to many fine concerts and recitals. J.S. Bach, a Lutheran, would be pleased! We are blessed to share the talents of our wonderful bell choir and sanctuary choir. Luther said, next to theology, music is God’s greatest gift. Lutherans love to sing. We share a liturgy passed down from the very beginning of the church that gives depth and breathe to the ancient theology and prayers of the saints who have gone before us.
St. John’s sanctuary is surrounded by stunning and vibrant stained glass windows that create a sense of wonder, beauty, and story for the gospel to be heard and the sacraments to be shared. Yet, the heart of the church is not a building, it is Christ, and the body of Christ who gather together for worship, prayer, fellowship and encouragement, especially during times like these that we are experiencing today.
The church is all about relationships, relationships with one another and our relationship with our living Lord. I believe that people today are hungry for relationships and community. Loneliness, isolation and now social distancing are burdens that so many wrestle with today. The church exists in part to share loving and caring relationships so that deep friendships may flourish. We value our intergenerational relationships. Jesus said, “love one another as I have loved you.” St. John’s and most churches in Helena try to do that, but we’re not perfect. We are a hospital for wounded and hurting people, not a luxury hotel for saints. We hope to provide space for grace, where all people can come for healing, not judgment. Our mission motto is, “Growing in grace, walking by faith and serving in love.”
St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran in its long history has strived be a serving church. Last year our youth group went up during a bone chilling weekend in February to Our Savior’s Lutheran Church at Rocky Boy and built bunkbeds delivered to needy families on the reservation. We were delighted when we saw children jumping for joy as they got their bunkbeds, but our youth’s eyes were opened to the poverty that exists. One youth remarked, “I didn’t know we had third world poverty in Montana!”
Our quilters make over 200 quilts every year to be sent around the world through Lutheran World Relief. Last summer some of our folks shared a few joyous evenings at Intermountain Children’s Homes holding Vacation Bible School. Each year the congregation has a “Brunch on the Lawn” fundraiser for “Bob’s Pantry,” the food bank and assistance center at the Helena Middle school. We like many churches and religious organizations in Helena quietly “serve in love.” It’s too bad that it’s the judgmental, conflicted churches and Christians that get all the press in our country when most churches, like ours, quietly serve people with compassion. Most Americans don’t know that Lutheran Social Services is the fourth largest social service agency in our country. When disasters hit, it’s the churches that come to help before the press arrives and stay long after the press leaves.
St. John’s 125th Anniversary has given our members a few moments to reflect on the blessings of God from the past in order to shape our ministry for the future. As Martin Lutheran used the printing press to share his teachings to the masses, so the pandemic has challenged St. John’s and other churches to utilize digital ministry to share our message of love and hope . In the midst of death and despair, God is raising up new ways for the church to minister to a hurting world.
St. John’s had planned to celebrate our 125th Anniversary in October with a joyous musical concert, a Smorgasbord dinner, and a celebratory worship service. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has caused us to postpone those plans for a year. The children of Israel waited forty years to get into the promised land, I guess we can wait another year for our celebration. God is teaching us patience during this time.
Because St. John’s has been blessed, we try to be a blessing to others. We have a goal of raising $125,000 for a Benevolence Appeal this year. One of our generous families has pledged $62,500 if we can raise the same. It’s a lofty goal. The gifts we receive will be matched and shared in equal ways between five organizations: Helena YWCA, Helena YMCA, Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp, Christikon Lutheran Bible Camp, and ELCA World Hunger. If readers would like to contribute please go to our website at www.helenastjohns.org or send gifts designated “125th Anniversary” to the church at 1000 Helena Ave, 59601. People can also view short videos of our history find out more about our church’s ministry.
St. John’s gives thanks to our Helena neighbors and friends for their support and encouragement throughout its 125 years of its existence. We look forward to many more years of sharing the grace and love of God with you in the future.
Pastor Brad Ulgenes and his wife Elaine moved to Helena in 2012. They are excited about the upcoming wedding of their son in Helena this fall and look forward to the birth of their first grandchild in Minnesota next spring. They feel blessed to live in beautiful Helena and be a part of the St. John’s family.