St. Paul’s Liberty Lutheran Church has a rich and interesting history. Though it has not been officially confirmed, the church may be the oldest Norwegian Lutheran Church in the United States that has been continuously worshiped in, and that has not been moved from its original site.
In the late 1840s, faithful Norwegian immigrants settled on Liberty Prairie. A nearby pastor, J.W.G. Dietrichson, began to preach in the neighborhood. When Pastor Dietrichson returned to Norway in 1850, Reverend A.C. Preus – encouraged by the faithfulness of those who gathered in the area – decided to begin a mission congregation on Liberty Prairie. A group of people began worshiping in the home of Sjur Reque, but it soon became clear that their mission required a building.
A previous historical document of the congregation reflects on that history by quoting the following conversation:
“I think we should build a church.”
“I think so too.”
“I think we should have a church in our community as they have in the East and West settlements.”
“I think it is too far for most of us to go to East or West Koshkonong. With horses or oxen it takes several hours to get there and back.”
“I believe we are many enough here to build a church and have a congregation of our own.”
“I think we could build it ourselves, if we all pitched in and helped.”
“We have material right here. If Sjur Reque could build a house out of limestone, why can’t we build a church.”
So – in 1851 – Nils Gilderhus donated land and Jacob Thoe was hired at one dollar a day to oversee the construction. Each member of the congregation agreed to donate seven dollars. To quote an earlier history:
“Up to this time the churches which had been built by the pioneer Norwegians had been log structures. It is interesting to note that, when the pioneers on Liberty Prairie decided to build, they thought in larger terms and with a view to the future. They wanted a church adequate in size and of material which would last.
“Nothing like it had been undertaken by the Norwegians before… …they had to plan without funds. They went out to get subscriptions for the new church, and the first subscription yielded only $700. Therefore, to decide to build a church was definitely an act of faith, which took much courage. It was also a great venture in cooperation.”
The building was larger than any in the area… 64 feet long; 42 feet wide; and 20 feet high with stone walls two feet thick. Though the interior was not yet complete, worship in the church began in 1853 and the structure was dedicated in 1859. The remainder of the 19th century saw Pastors A.C. Preus, J.A. Otteson, and G.G. Krostu serve the parish.
A previous anniversary booklet included two quotes. One is from the President of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, J.A. Aasgard:
“On this festal day our thoughts turn to God in thankfulness for his abundant mercies and loving kindness through all these years ….. From the time that our fathers came from Norway until the present, his promise to be in the midst of his church has been kept.”
The other quote is from A.C. Odden, the pastor at that time:
“The church is more than a building. It is more than wood, stone and metal. Our church is a symbol. It is a symbol of the body of believers called the Communion of Saints. I pray that our venerable old Liberty Church may always represent this to us and the coming generations ….. that Christian faith and way of life which motivated the pioneers when they built the church. The finest thing which can be said of any congregation is that it is an organism through which the will of God is accomplished.”
Further construction followed as the congregation added the sacristy to the west of the building, and – most incredibly – dug a basement beneath this heavy stone building years after it had been constructed. There are fascinating stories of dirt and rock carried out from under the church on sleds pulled by horses.
In 1914 the interior of the church was completely renovated. Walls and ceilings were plastered; new hardwood floors laid; new stairways built; new pews purchased; new pulpit, altar, and altar statue donated; and stained glass windows added. The eight large windows, created by Carl Reimann of Milwaukee, each cost only $44 at the time they were installed.
Moving into more recent history, the mission required more building space; and in l974 the Education Center was built across the road from the church. That facility housed Sunday Church School rooms, a fellowship hall, a kitchen, and office facilities for the pastor and secretary.
The interior of the sanctuary was redecorated in 1986 with new paint and a new chancel configuration with a freestanding altar.
In 2000 a new addition to the north of the church was dedicated, providing significantly larger narthex space, new accessible restrooms, and five new rooms for Sunday Church School in the lower level.
In 2012, the electric clapper system for the church bell failed for an extended period of time. It took over a year before that was addressed. However, it provided an excellent opportunity to examine the bell and renew an appreciation for its history. It had been cast with some text in both English and Norwegian:
St. Paul’s Kirke
Nuværende Pastor, J.A. Otteson
Liberty Prairie, Wisconsin
St. Paul’s Church
Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church
At Present Pastor, J.A. Otteson
Liberty Prairie, Wisconsin
While we are proud of our Norwegian background and will continue to cherish it, the makeup of our congregation will continue to change and reflect the residents of the area while we write new chapters in our history.