Written by Laurie Kay Sommers, former project manager, Preserve Nordic Churches Project
It was a time eerily like our own—overwhelmed hospitals, people wearing masks, churches, schools and businesses shuttered. A virus for which there was no cure sweeping across countries and continents. As we navigate the coronavirus pandemic of our time, there is comfort in the knowledge that we have survived pandemics before. One poignant and powerful story from Spanish Flu of 1918-19 comes from Kalevala Finnish Evangelical National Lutheran. This small rural church, located in northeast Minnesota’s Carlton County, became a place of refuge during the dark days of 1918, when both the flu and the deadly Cloquet-Moose Lake wildfire devastated the community.
The Finnish pioneers who settled Kalevala Township were no strangers to tribulation. They had survived the immigrant journey to their new home only to have their original church burn to the ground in 1914. The community was resilient, though, rebuilding on the same site. The new church, like its predecessor, was simple and spare. Above the entrance doors the builders painted the words “SUOMALAINEN-KIRKKO E.L.K. 1915” (Finnish Church/Evangelical Lutheran Church). Inside, iron and walnut veneer chairs rested on sturdy heart pine floors. Congregants faced a simple pine veneer altar and raised pulpit. The white, clapboard building with its central tower was part of a small but vibrant community that included a school, library, youth social club for “athletics, temperance, and dancing,” Kalevala Workers Lending Hall, post office, and general store.
The new church was finished in 1915, just three years before the fateful autumn of 1918. The Spanish Flu epidemic had hit the Twin Cities in early September and was spreading across the state. Then, another tragedy struck. A spark from a passing freight train ignited the worst fire in Minnesota history. The great Cloquet-Moose Lake Fire destroyed 38 communities and burned 250,000 acres. On October 12, it roared into Kalevala Township, torching timberlands parched by a terrible drought.
When the smoke cleared, the little Finnish church was one of the few buildings left standing. Miraculously, the fire had split in two as it approached, sparing the church and a few nearby buildings. Oral histories tell of Kalevala Lutheran’s first pastor, Erich Westerback, who knelt on the banks of a nearby river, tongues of fire all around, praying for mercy from the Lord’s wrath. In Kalevala Township, people who had lost everything sheltered in the church, seeking relief from the cold, wet weather that set in after the fire. Local stories recount how even the pulpit was filled with fire sufferers. For weeks afterward, so many homeless took refuge that the seats were unbolted from the floor and moved to make more room. (They have never been refastened.) The Red Cross and National Guard later used the church as a base for their relief operations.
In the wake of the fire, the flu epidemic worsened. One story concerns Axel Pietila, a young man who lay with his head on the foot rail of the altar, gravely ill with influenza. People were sure he would die, but Pietila recovered. Perhaps it was his sturdy Finnish constitution. Perhaps it was his faith. Perhaps it was the care of a nurse or loved one. But Pietila survived. His story survived—a tale of hope in the midst of despair.
The church continued to serve its community as a place of worship until 1966, when it closed after a congregational split. For many years it stood vacant. In the end, the community couldn’t let it remain empty. There was too much history, too many stories. Now lovingly restored, it serves as community center. Local people moved the former church across the road to a safer location, sacrificing their listing in the National Register of Historic Places as a result. But those who care about the building know its worth. It is a survivor. And the seats remain unbolted from the floor, ready for whatever comes next.
Much of the information about the church’s history comes from David C. Anderson, “Kalevala Finnish Evangelical National Lutheran Church.” National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Waukon, IA, June 1, 1998.