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Written by Laurie K. Sommers, Preserve Nordic Churches Project Manager, 2017-2019

 

It was pure serendipity.  Elmer A. Forsberg—head of the Department of Drawing, Painting. and Illustration at Chicago’s Art Institute, and Consul of Finland for the Midwest—was teaching a summer art class at his cabin in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula. The cabin, it turns out, was not far from the village of Covington, where, in 1910, the predominantly Finnish congregation had built a simple, clapboard, Gothic Revival church. The building was functional, loved by its congregation, but unremarkable.  That was about to change.

 

Bethany Lutheran Church, Covington, Michigan, built in 1910, was the second church of this congregation. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.
Bethany Lutheran Church, Covington, Michigan, built in 1910, was the second church of this congregation. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.

 

During the summer of 1931, Forsberg visited the little church, then called Rauhan Koti (Home of Peace) Evangelical Lutheran (the name was changed to Trinity Lutheran in 1950). It was a momentous visit. The congregation had added to the building as funds permitted, but the interior was plain.  Forsberg particularly noticed the vacant wall behind the altar. It needed a painting, he thought, and told the astonished pastor that he would provide one, free of charge. He measured the space and set in motion an artistic collaboration that would transform an unremarkable space into something truly remarkable.

 

Forsberg returned to Chicago and challenged his Art Institute students to create a painting for the empty wall space.  Theodore Johnson (who later became a WPA muralist) came up with the best design: his triptych of “The Last Supper” was first exhibited at the Art Institute before its installation at the church.  The congregation had volunteered to build an apse to house the painting, and Edward Westervelt, an architecture student, drew up the plans.  Other students designed the altar table and railing, carved statues of St. Peter and St. John, a twelve-armed iron candlestick, and wrought-iron chandeliers. The unusual art glass windows (depicting local occupations of farmer, lumberman, mason, and blacksmith) were fabricated for free by Abraham Schuler Art Glass of Chicago. (Sources differ on whether it was Schuler or Art Institute students who did the design.) Church members helped with the carpentry and metalwork.  It was a unique creative partnership. The result is an exquisite Art Deco interior that was dedicated in 1933. The work was beautiful, and it was free–a true blessing during the Great Depression.

 

 

The Art Deco interior of Bethany Lutheran features a triptych of “The Last Supper” by Chicago Art Institute student, Theodore Johnson.  Photos by Laurie K. Sommers.
The Art Deco interior of Bethany Lutheran features a triptych of “The Last Supper” by Chicago Art Institute student, Theodore Johnson.  Photos by Laurie K. Sommers.

 

 

The statues of St. Peter and St. John were designed and carved by art students identified as “Miss Sterling and Miss Tufts.”  Photos by Laurie K. Sommers.
The statues of St. Peter and St. John were designed and carved by art students identified as “Miss Sterling and Miss Tufts.”  Photos by Laurie K. Sommers.

 

Window fabricated by Abraham Schuler Art Glass of Chicago, symbolizing the work of local masons. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.
Window fabricated by Abraham Schuler Art Glass of Chicago, symbolizing the work of local masons. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.

 

Of all the artistry and craftsmanship displayed in the sanctuary, local people are most proud of the work by one of their own. Blacksmith Victor Kanerva crafted the four wrought-iron chandeliers that grace the ceiling.

 

One of four wrought-iron chandeliers made by local blacksmith Victor Kanerva. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.
One of four wrought-iron chandeliers made by local blacksmith Victor Kanerva. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.

 

The congregation has proudly and conscientiously cared for their church’s amazing artwork, restoring the mural in 1990, the art glass in 2000, and in 2019 adding insulation and repairing roof leaks with a grant from Partners for Sacred Places’ Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project.

 

Elmer Forsberg's painting of Bethany Lutheran and the village of Covington. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.
Elmer Forsberg’s painting of Bethany Lutheran and the village of Covington. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.

 

(**Information drawn from the working files of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, and Jeff Huebner, “Art Deco Artistry in the Northwoods,” Michigan History (January-February 2010): 14-19.)

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