Drive down almost any country road in Wisconsin and eventually you’ll pass a church with a steeple and a story that will blow you away.
A few weeks ago, we stumbled onto the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church just as a summer storm rolled through Shawano County. I stopped to take a couple of pictures because the white picket fence and the rising steeple struck me as a cool contrast against the foreboding clouds.
I know I looked a little nuts as I knelt down on the deserted road and wrestled the wind for control of my lens, because a nice man in an old pick up drove up and asked me if I was okay.
I waved him off with a smile and continued framing my shot. I sensed a good story lay somewhere on that road, between the clean, little church on one side of the street, and the long stables on the other.
It did, and it involves a church bell with a B tone and the intriguing inscription, “I am Mary.”
But first, the people.
According to Mrs. Almon Mathisen, church historian during the parish’s 100th jubilee in 1969, most of the congregation’s founding members made their way to America from Norway via a sailboat. Naturally, they packed butter and cheese for the 14-week journey. “On stormy days the waves frightened them terribly, and they had to hang on so as not to be overthrown by the motion of the boat,” she wrote. The youngest parishioner to arrive was a baby girl born at sea.
Drawn by the areas rich timber and abundant game, the group made their way northwest from Green Bay and settled in what would become the town of Lunds (Not coincidentally, two charter members of the parish include Johannes and Taale Lund.)
With the nearest town and the closest doctor nine miles away, the people of Lunds relied on each other to build, worship and heal, even, as gruesomely pointed out by Ms. Mathisen, to the extent of amputations, which were occasionally performed in the home.
Faith remained central to their lives and, in 1874 they built the church. Seventeen years later, parishioner Rasmus Paulson added the steeple, a baptismal font, pulpit, altar and ring. In 1895, the congregation raised $100.79 to purchase a bell, which they rang at sundown on Christmas Eve, Easter, and the Pentecost. It came with the aforementioned and unrequested inscription, “I am Mary,” which is both weird and kind of wonderful.
So, the next time I squint at my alarm on a Sunday morning and consider rolling over and skipping mass, I’m going to think about Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church members and all they went through to worship in that pretty little white church.
And, if I’m ever in that area on Pentecost, I’m going to listen hard for a spunky little bell named Mary.