Lutheran "Tree of Life" in front of the Center for Faith and Life at Luther College. (Submitted photo)
Lutheran "Tree of Life" in front of the Center for Faith and Life at Luther College. (Submitted photo)
This Sunday, May 26, is the 150th birthday of the Lutheran Church in Decorah.

In celebration of that milestone and in thanksgiving for those 150 years, all four local Lutheran congregations will -- for only the second time in 125 years -- gather together in the same place and at the same time, for a worship service.

Sponsored by Decorah's First Lutheran Church and Decorah Lutheran Church, with special guests Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and the Luther College Student Congregation, the sesquicentennial service is Sunday, Nov. 10, in the Center For Faith and Life at Luther College, and is open to the public.

"What began as a single group of Norwegian Lutherans in 1863 has developed over these 150 years into four groups, with a substantial number of non-Norwegians," one of the event's organizers, Wilfred Bunge of First Lutheran Church, said. "I think it will be a very nice service, at which people celebrate their one-ness."

Francis Peterson, from Decorah Lutheran Church, is another organizer of the celebration.

"We want a high level of participation from people of all ages," he said. "It's a bona fide worship service," he added, with all four local pastors - Chad Huebner (First Lutheran), David Sorenson (Decorah Lutheran) Joan Mau (Good Shepherd) and Michael Blair (Luther College) -- participating in its planning.

One thing, though, is certain - music will be a big part of the celebration. The service will feature several church choir performances, Bunge noted, in accordance with Lutheranism's emphasis on music.

The Rev. Harold ("Huck") Usgaard, a native of Decorah and graduate of Luther College, will preach at the service. Rev. Usgaard is bishop of the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Early days in Decorah

According to a brief history of Lutheranism in Decorah written by Bunge, Ulrik Vilhelm Koren and his wife, Elisabeth, came to Northeast Iowa in 1853, in response to a call from the Paint Creek, Turkey River and Little Iowa Norwegian Lutheran congregations.

"Since Pastor Koren was responsible for a large part of Northeast Iowa and Southeast Minnesota, it was not possible for him to conduct regular worship services in multiple locations," Bunge wrote. "Thus, over time, many independent congregations developed from his large parish."

Early in 1863, Pastor Koren chaired meetings of members of the Decorah and Madison areas of the Little Iowa Congregation with a view toward establishing them as independent congregations, Bunge's history noted.

"The final decision on separation occurred at a meeting in Decorah May 26, 1863-the Decorah and Madison congregations formed a pastorate of their own," he wrote.

In 1876, the Norwegian Synod (the organizational union of a large number of Norwegian Lutheran immigrant congregations, largely in the Midwest) shared with the Lutheran congregation in Decorah the cost of constructing a church building in downtown Decorah.

"This was to be the 'temple' of the Synod and the college church, as well as the home of the local congregation," Bunge noted. "This is the building now known as First Lutheran Church."

Beginning of Decorah Lutheran Church

According to Bunge's research, a theological controversy dominated the life of the members of the Norwegian Synod in the 1880s. The dispute concerned the doctrine of "election" or predestination.

"It was a matter of finding a proper balance between the sovereignty of God and the freedom of Christian believers," Bunge said.

Both theologians and lay people, including the Norwegian Lutherans of Decorah, joined the debate and took sides, leading to a division of the congregation in Decorah at the annual meeting of Jan. 7, 1889.

The majority withdrew, formed Decorah Lutheran Church, built a new frame church and joined a new synod, the United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America.

"The minority chose to remain with the Norwegian Synod and thus retained the church building (including the mortgage); they altered their name to First Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Decorah.

By 1917, most of the Norwegian Lutherans in the country were together again, this time under the name the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America.

"Decorah Lutheran and First Lutheran were once more and have remained to this day in the same synod," Bunge wrote.

Beginning of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

In the late 1950s some members of the two Lutheran congregations in Decorah organized a move toward the formation of a third Lutheran congregation, to be located on the west side of the city.

This resulted in Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in 1958. The congregation dedicated its present sanctuary Nov. 20, 1988.

Beginning of the Luther College Student Congregation

Until the 1950s, Luther College students worshipped with local Decorah congregations. By 1959, after several years spent discussing the possibility of forming their own student congregation, the Luther College Student Congregation formed, calling its own pastor.

The Center for Faith and Life, the first campus building constructed with worship as one of its primary uses, opened in the fall of 1977.