Pieces of the past

Time capsule provides insight into Southwest church’s history

Reconstructing with an eye toward the future, Salem English Lutheran Church unexpectedly discovered a window into its past.

This winter, a crew demolishing part of the old Salem building at West 28th Street and Lyndale Avenue South found a copper box tucked inside a date stone. Opposite sides of the rock were inscribed with different years — one 1889, the other 1938.

1889 and 1938 were two very important years in Salem’s 122-year history. The former was the year in which Salem’s 16 charter members first built a church at the corner it still calls home (the total cost of the initial church was $2,104). And in 1938, with membership growing, the old Salem structure underwent extensive renovations and an Educational Building was added to the site.

It stood to reason that the copper box contained some sort of message from one of those years. But the box was completely sealed, a saw being needed to open it, and none of Salem’s current members had any inkling what it might contain.

So, in mid-March, Salem leadership opened the box during a festive Sunday morning event at Intermedia Arts, the church’s temporary home while construction is ongoing at its historic site across the street.

With a couple dozen Salem members and curious onlookers in attendance, the box was sawed open. As sparks flew, anticipation built — might the box contain something more interesting than a pile of dust? If so, what?

Onlookers weren’t disappointed. Hundreds of remarkably well-preserved photos, coins, old church bulletins and newspaper clippings were carefully removed and placed on a table for all to see. It soon became clear that the artifacts were from 1938, though some items dated all the way back to Salem’s inception.

As Salem nears the end of a period of transition that began with the church’s decision to sell a portion of its property for mixed-use development five years ago, the time capsule provides a fascinating window into another period of transition from the church’s past.

From a seed, a mighty oak

The late 1930s were a period of fervent optimism about Salem’s future. A book published in 1939 to commemorate the church’s 50th anniversary shows that from very humble beginnings, the church had grown significantly by the end of its first half century.

In a diary, one of the first pastors at Salem wrote the following about the church’s small congregation during the first decade of its existence.

“The people who attended Salem were all of the poor laboring class and not at all churchly. Lake Street was then virtually the city limits, street cars did not run any farther. Most of the churchly people refused to take any interest in the mission until they could see how things would go. To some it was not Norwegian, to others not Swedish, the Germans were not many, and some of those who visited were rank rationalists and almost Bolshevists.”

From there, Salem grew in stops and starts until the Rev. Paul Wetzler took over as pastor in 1928. During the first decade of his pastorship, the church grew exponentially, with the recently discovered time capsule serving as a testament to its remarkable expansion during the depression era.

According to church records, from 1928 to 1939, annual attendance at Salem grew from 13,000 to more than 40,000, and confirmed membership expanded from 430 to over 1,000. Rapid growth created a need for a bigger, renovated church facility, with work on just such a project beginning in 1938.

In a note placed in the time capsule and dated July 20, 1938, Wetzler wrote the following:

“It was July 14, 1889 that this stone was first laid as the cornerstone of the first church. Forty nine years later, plus ten days, we use this stone as a Marker to tell the coming generations of things that are now taking place. Would that we had a picture of that small company that gathered to lay the first corner stone! 49 years have passed and out of that seed has grown a might oak that through the years has cast its cooling shadows upon the passing multitudes.”

Toward a sustainable future

Salem continued to grow following the 1938 expansion.

In the early 1960s — a period that current pastor Jen Nagel characterized as “the heyday of the church” — Salem’s main building was again expanded, this time to a total of 44,000 square feet.

Shortly thereafter, of course, civil rights struggles hit a fever pitch and the U.S. became embroiled in the Vietnam War. As was the case for many urban churches throughout the country, Salem’s membership began to decline.

By the turn of the century, Salem had fewer members than it did during the pre-Wetzler era.

“We had a very large church building, and every year we were putting about $100,000 into it — money that wasn’t going toward our congregation,” Nagel said. “It became a question of whether or not we could sustain that.”

By 2006, church administration decided to sell a portion of the church’s property in order to address the sustainability issue. In a letter written to the congregation on October 29, 2006, Salem leadership explained the decision to sell.

“Over the years, Salem’s facility has dramatically grown, and today it is a large and unsustainable building … Salem has entered into a partnership with Lyndale UCC. Salem and Lyndale plan that in the future, the two congregations will share a ministry center. The Salem property will be development for mixed-use,” church leadership wrote.

Five years later, that development is almost complete. An affordable rental housing development is currently under construction at the corner of Lyndale and 28th, with the Salem-Lyndale UCC building to be located on a portion of Salem’s old property further east along 28th. Salem is currently holding services across the street at Intermedia Arts, but plans on moving back onto the church’s historic property this November.

The time capsule harkens back to a period of growth and expansion at Salem. Though the circumstances are different this time around, the number of young members at the capsule opening and the enthusiasm of the congregation as they prepare to move back onto the historic church property indicates that, as was the case 73 years ago, Salem’s future remains bright.

Fittingly, plans are in the works for the current congregation to place a time capsule of its own in the new church building as work on the site winds down this fall. As has been the case during periods of transition throughout the church’s history, the congregation will once again “tell the coming generations of things that are now taking place” at Salem.