Congregations that Grew with AF Now See Empty Pews

EMERADO, N.D. -- Fifty years ago, the Grand Forks Air Force Base was just getting geared up and Ascension Lutheran Church, in its shadow, opened its doors with its own kind of military mission.

The base got its first Cold War mission in 1957 but didn't start really booming until the early 1960s into the strategic giant it became for a quarter century, with long-range bombers, fighter planes, missile crews and midair-refueling tankers all vying for space.

Last weekend, Ascension Lutheran marked its 50th anniversary, and like the base, it has far fewer personnel.

At its peak in the 1970s, with 8,000 or more active personnel plus thousands more -- family members and civilian support personnel -- the base changed the culture of northeast North Dakota.

Lutheran leaders ordered an installation of their own, with a mission of ministry to the swelling military population a short walk from the base entrance.

Rapid growth

It was a great idea, says Janice Sauer.

She and her late husband transferred from a Grand Forks Lutheran church to help start Ascension, because it made more sense to be attending closer to home, she said.

In the reverse of most church starts, construction began in 1962, before the congregation was organized.

Sauer's uncle, Clifford Veitch, did much of the carpentry and also signed on as one of the first 140 members, an usually large number for a church start.

The brick building is nestled against the grassy bank of the road passing over U.S. Highway 2 to the base entrance.

The congregation soon was bursting at the seams, with 70 percent of its people coming from the base, said Jennie Quanrud, who joined with her husband, Kenneth, in the mid-1970s.

"When we joined, the congregation was over 300, we had 160-plus on Sunday," Quanrud said. "If you didn't get there a half-hour before church, you had to sit on folding chairs."

The church quickly built an annex to handle nearly 100 children in Sunday school. Confirmation classes swelled to 15 or more.

"My husband ushered a lot and when church was over they had to scramble to get the chairs out of the way so people could get out of the church," said Darlene Sieg, who joined in the late 1960s. "But it was really wonderful. That was when the base was in its heyday."

Shrinking community

Ascension, like the base, is a shadow of its former self.

The base now has about 1,100 military personnel with its new drone mission, leaving much of the base -- and surrounding area -- emptied.

Calvary Baptist Church, once a big, bustling congregation just across U.S. Highway 2 from Ascension, closed more than a decade ago. Baseview Assembly of God Church, down Highway 2 a few hundred yards, closed several years ago.

"Now there's only a handful of us left, maybe 25 active members," Quanrud said.

Ascension just began holding services only twice a month, alternating with three other congregations in Turtle River Ministries.

The Rev. Mari Nyberg remains the pastor, after a decade serving as long as any previous pastor here, and remains confident that God's hand is on this congregation, she says.

The anniversary was a big success, as about 80 people returned for last weekend's celebration, Sauer said.


The prize, perhaps, for longest trip back went to former pastor, the Rev. Scottie Lloyd, now a pastor in San Bernardino, Calif., retired from a career as an Army chaplain. He was recruited from seminary by Lutheran leaders in 1983 to serve at Ascension.

"Your first congregation is kind of like they say in the Army, your first drill sergeant, somebody you never forget as a basic forming moment in your life," Lloyd said Friday from California. "They used to call the folks there the 'prairie theologians,' and they put up with sermons that were way too long ... and in their tolerance, their patience and their sharing, taught a lot of beginning pastors, including me."

On holidays like Easter, he would see 275 or more people crowd into Ascension, Lloyd said.

But duty calls brought unusual challenges to the congregation, Lloyd said.

"I remember one Sunday we took a nose dive in attendance because they had an emergency exercise at the Air Base and 60 percent of the congregation couldn't move, nobody could get off the base."

Quanrud said, "At any given time, the faces would change every three to six months, with people being transferred in and out."

Sauer said the military mission gave a special spirit to the congregation.

"I always felt we were really blessed in Emerado for the Air Base coming here and being a mission church," Sauer said. "We got to meet a lot of people that in a small-sized church you normally wouldn't have had the opportunity to, people who have lived all over the world, who had different ideas and different experiences than you did."

The mission church did its job, said Sauer. "We performed our mission, and sent people all over the world."

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