Poplar church celebrates 50 years of shared faith

Merger of Lutheran churches in Poplar, Wentworth came together in Peace

Peace Lutheran Church in Poplar got its start when Bethel Lutheran Church in Poplar and Grace Lutheran Church in Wentworth merged in 1968. Fifty years after ground was broken for the new church on Sept. 21, 1969, the congregation is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a community event and special service. (Shelley Nelson/
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Peace Lutheran Church in Poplar got its start 50 years ago on Sept. 21, 1969.

That’s when the ground was broken on donated land for the new home for two worshipping communities: Bethel Lutheran Church in Poplar and Grace Lutheran Church in Wentworth.

“The church was actually built in six months,” said Linda Helenius, a member of Peace Lutheran. “They started it on Sept. 21, 1969, and they held the first service on March 22, 1970 … There was tons and tons of help. It was amazing.”

Pastor Douglas Morton led that first service in the newly constructed church at 9523 U.S. Highway 2 in Poplar.


Morton, Douglas_web.jpg
Rev. Douglas Morton

Now 85, Pastor Morton is planning to attend an upcoming celebration of the congregation’s first 50 years at the church, Helenius said.

A free community celebration is planned for Saturday, Sept. 21, with a special worship service followed by a potluck featuring recipes from past church cookbooks Sunday, Sept. 22.

With the bulletin from that first service still available, Pastor Donna Rutten is planning to follow that inaugural sermon when she delivers the Sunday service.

During the celebration Saturday, The Holy Hootenanners will perform a blend of gospel, blues, folk and spiritual music. The group comes from a small country church, Salem Lutheran, in Mahtowa, Minnesota, population 370, and has performed in a variety of venues around the area, including at the City on the Hill Music Festival in Bayfront Park.

Peace Lutheran Church is holding the celebration in conjunction with the groundbreaking because March — the 50th anniversary of the first service in the new building — can be a difficult time of year to hold it, Helenius said.

During the event, people can take a look back on the last 50 years of the church community. Helenius put together a timeline of member baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals in five-year increments taken from a church ledger.

Part of the problem ... all the old vibrant members have aged and become deceased.


Among the names on the wall, Marjorie Bong-Drucker, the widow of one of Poplar’s most famous sons, Maj. Richard I. Bong. The major earned the Medal of Honor and the title “Ace of Aces” during World War II. His widow’s funeral was held at the church in his hometown in 2003.

It was a Bong family member and her husband, Joyce and Reynold Erickson, who donated the church’s chimes in 1977, said Audrey Hakkila, who became a member of Bethel Lutheran Church at age 4. She served on the committee that oversaw the merger of the Bethel and Grace Lutheran congregations and continues to serve Peace Lutheran as its historian.

The two churches had merged prior to Peace Lutheran being built, Hakkila said. She said before the new church was built, members of the Grace Lutheran congregation, worshipped at Bethel Lutheran.

The two congregations became one March 1, 1968. The following February, the church council authorized hiring an architect, Hilman Estenson, to design the new church. The building plans were approved by the congregation in April 1969.

The baptismal fountain that was once donated to former Bethel Lutheran Church in Poplar in the memory of Mr. and Mrs. Fredrick Bowman is still in use at the merged congregation at Peace Lutheran Church. (Shelley Nelson/

Elements of both churches — the baptismal fountain from Bethel and a cornerstone from Grace — can still be seen at Peace Lutheran Church.

Hakkila said when she retired, she started cleaning out closets at Peace Lutheran and discovered the old ledgers from the Bethel and Grace Lutheran churches, as well as ledgers from the old Nazareth Lutheran Church in Cloverland, which are now archived at Peace Lutheran Church. Nazareth merged with Bethel in 1964.


When the congregations merged the church had 597 baptized members, a number that has dwindled to about 170 baptized members, according to Pastor Rutten.

Today, the church is known for its quilting group, Lenten services and annual harvest dinner, as well as hosting scouts, boys and girls, Rutten said. She said the church still offers a food shelf and there is still a woman’s group that meets once a month, she said. For the last three years, the church has also offered the community Friday fish fries, Rutten said.

“It seems like we’re always busy here,” Helenius said.

A new program that got its start in the spring is TLC from PLC, Rutten said. The program allows members to take frozen soups to members of the community who need them, such as someone who just got out of the hospital, or someone who just had a family member pass away.

The cornerstone of the former Grace Lutheran Church in Wentworth remains on the grounds of Peace Lutheran Church in Poplar. (Shelley Nelson/

“Our goal … is to make this an intergenerational activity where we would gather, probably on a Sunday afternoon, and all the different generations would make the soups, package and label,” Rutten said. “It’s a beautiful, grassroots project and we got the idea from a Lutheran church in Arkansas.”

One thing that has diminished is the church choir with just six to eight members, Helenius said.

“Part of the problem — and I think that’s every church — all the old vibrant members have aged and become deceased,” Helenius said. Getting new members, particularly in a small community like Poplar, is hard, she said.

One thing that has been stable at the church is its pastoral staff. Over the last 50 years, the church has only had four pastor who served the congregation for decades, Helenius said. She said she is writing to those pastors to try to get them to come for the anniversary celebration.

If you go

What: Peace Lutheran Church 50th anniversary

When: 1-5 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday

Where: 9523 U.S. Highway 2, Poplar

Related Topics: FAITHHISTORY
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