Among the gently rolling hills of Southern Fillmore County is Granger, Minn., This small unincorporated town has a historical milestone coming up. They are celebrating the 150th anniversary of St. Matthew’s Lutheran church.
In the late 1850s, the village of Granger was founded and from there, German settlers started holding church services in their homes. It wasn’t until 1873 that the first organized congregation was recorded, and in 1877 they built a small wooden church.
“It was the old style church and on the south side there was a big old pot bellied stove,” says parishioner Allen Mandelko. “There was another building called the Sunday school building. The ladies aide, once a month, would always have a supper, and there was a small kitchen on the back. In the evening at supper time they would have a meal. They had big attendance; everyone in Granger.”
The parish hall, also known as the Sunday school building, was constructed in 1897 next to the church as a gathering place for church suppers, Sunday school, vacation Bible school and meetings. It was heated with wood, and had a small kitchen on the back for cooking but did not have running water.
“There was a big church supper they used to put on and was always served in the parish hall. I remember one time a bunch of us kids (I was pretty young, probably about 8 or 9) and we were running around the building chasing each other and as I ran by the back door, Mrs. Elmer Leitz threw the dishwater out and just doused me,” chuckles parishioner David Bigalk. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was just mortified when she did that. I remember that well.”
In 1954 it was decided that it wasn’t feasible to update the old church and parish hall so a decision was made to build a new church.
“It didn’t have any hall to have gatherings in,” states parishioner Linda O’Connor. “We wanted to modernize. We had a big congregation then and a lot of kids.
The first cornerstone was laid in the fall of 1954 but the contractors informed the church that they were short on labor and needed help. Fifteen men from the church volunteered one day per week with three men working per shift.
“We dug ditches, we carried block, we pushed wheel barrows of cement. We did all of this hard manual labor carrying block and brick. All of the brick at the front of the church, we got them off the railroad in Cresco and we had prongs that we stuck into them and we hauled them back down here on trailers. All the cement was hauled by hand in a wheelbarrow. I was 20 years old,” says Mandelko.
The structure was finished by the following year in enough time to have Ash Wednesday services in the new church. Reverend Orville Boettcher was pastor at that time until 1960 but he came back to speak at the mortgage burning ceremony in 1962.
In 1968 a fire damaged the interior. It was thought to have been started by a cigarette being thrown in a garbage can. The majority of the damage was smoke damage.
“All of the beams here and in the church proper use to be blonde,” explained O’Connor. “After the fire everything darkened so they just fixed it dark.”
The interior was cleaned and restored and a new electric organ was purchased. David Bigalk has fond memories of singing in St. Matthews church. He started singing in church as a teenager.
“We had a good choir. It was fun to sing in that. I think I enjoyed my solo work at the church the most. I sang quite a few times,” he says.
In 2011, St. Matthew’s and their sister congregation of St. Paul’s, Big Spring joined with Greenfield Lutheran church in Harmony. Unfortunately in 2015 Big Spring closed. St. Matthew’s remained with Greenfield Lutheran and added Scheie Lutheran church outside of Mabel, Minn. In 2020, St. Matthew’s joined with the rural Harmony parish Saetersdal and St. Paul’s in Lime Springs, Iowa, in which they are currently situated with Reverend Jeffrey Jacobs. Congregational membership is currently around 120 members. In addition to Sunday worship services, they have ladies circle meetings and an annual pancake supper.
St. Matthew’s 150th anniversary celebration will occur on July 30 with a church service at 10 a.m. Former ministers, interim ministers and guest speakers will be present. After the service there will be a roast beef dinner and fellowship. There will also be a picture display of the history along with plenty of stories from those who have been a part of the church.