Friday, August 16, 2019

Bethany Lutheran Church: Metamorphosis and memories...

Bethany Lutheran Church, Duluth, Minnesot
When a house of God is vacated only enduring memories remain...
By Jim Heffernan

People who know me well ask me what I think of the plan to convert the unused building that once housed the church I grew up in, Bethany Lutheran in Duluth’s West End, into a restaurant/bar. (Click HERE for story link)

“Brick and mortar,” is my standard reply. It’s just a brick building and whoever owns it can do with it as they please. The congregation of Bethany was merged with two others in the West End several years ago and the building put up for sale.

“But it was God’s house,” some might say. Well, God has moved out. Is that the devil moving in? I know some past ministers of Bethany who would believe that, and a lot of parishioners as well. Believe what you will.

My main attachments to that building are the memories from my earlier life centered there. They can’t be erased because the building has been put to a different use.

Before I was even born, the funerals of my maternal grandparents were held there. In more recent times so were the funerals of my parents, numerous relatives and treasured family friends. My parents were wed in that sanctuary, their two sons baptized there, as were my own daughter and son. My daughter, who had spent her early childhood in the Bethany Sunday school, was married there, the most recent family milestone connected to Bethany.

Memories. Some rueful, some joyful. All in that brick structure with the tall cross-topped steeple, built just after the turn of the 20th century by Swedish immigrants, carrying on the faith of their homeland half a world away. They conducted their services in the Swedish language until the 1920s.

History. But it’s only brick and mortar now.

Still, other memories bubble to the surface. Oh, those Christmases. Two 25-foot evergreens festooned with colored lights flanking the altar — a treasured memory from childhood. And putting on a nativity tableau on a makeshift stage. I was always a crook-carrying shepherd — never Joseph.

Those warm memories remain long after the building closes or is put to other uses.

Ruth Heffernan playing Bethany organ, circa 1950's
But I do want to express one caveat to my largely unsentimental and unemotional reaction to my old church no longer being a church.

At the front of the sanctuary, up on the balcony, above the altar, sits a pipe organ, banks of gold-tinted pipes lined up on either side of a choir loft. My mother was the musician who played that organ for most of the history of Bethany — 58 years starting at age 19 until her retirement over 40 years ago in her mid-70s.

Not simply brick and mortar involved there, as I ponder it.

From those pipes flowed the great Lutheran anthems, the holy liturgy, the hymns sung each Sunday, the Bach preludes, the familiar carols of Christmas, the somber Good Fridays and the accompaniment for joyous Easter Sundays. That was all expressed with tender feeling by my mother’s hands on the organ’s two ivory keyboards and dozens of stops together with an octave of bass pedals below the console activated by her feet.

That kind of thing can make an impression on the son of an accomplished organist. It’s more than just a precious memory — like the other reflections of times in the church. It’s deeper. To this day I cannot hear pipe organ music without a flood of memories.

It brings to mind Sir Arthur Sullivan’s enduring composition “The Lost Chord” in which an organist strikes one chord of music that has “the sound of of a great Amen.” As the poem unfolds, it’s clear that the organist is never able to find that chord again, and then laments:

“It may be that death’s bright angel
Will speak in that chord again,
It may be that only in Heav’n
I shall hear that grand Amen.”

Amen to that.

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