DULUTH — Chet Johnson sat in the front pew of the United Protestant Church’s UCC, awaiting the reveal of a 100-year-old time capsule. “I want to see if there are any names I remember,” the 91-year-old said.
Johnson has been attending since she was 6, when her family moved to the Morgan Park neighborhood. He married and raised his children here, and celebrated his wife’s funeral here. It is also where his mother taught Sunday school and where he served on nearly every board and council office in the church.
As for the history of the church – and the neighborhood – Johnson knows plenty.
“Everyone walked. We never had a car. Once or twice a year we would go into town to get clothes or shoes. We had everything we needed here: a grocery store, post office, fire department, police department, jail,” Johnson recalled.
There was also the Good Fellowship Club, a swimming pool, gym, bowling alley, as well as movie screenings in the auditorium.
The same goes for the church, which hasn’t changed much, Johnson said.
At the front of the sanctuary there is a shaded line in the wood near the altar – evidence of where the platform was raised and then lowered. Schools came to record music in the sanctuary because the acoustics were so good. When the steel industry was down, people from the factory worked on the church, he said.
The UCC United Protestant Church, which stands at the mouth of Morgan Park on West 88th Avenue, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary with the exhumation of its time capsule, a service with special guests and a buffet lunch of hot -dogs Coney.
Construction of the Morgan Park homes began in 1914. “U.S. Steel factory workers wanted to build this model town,” said Bob Berg of the Duluth Preservation Alliance.
In 1917, people of different faiths began to meet in various places. US Steel donated $100,000 for the construction of the building, which opened in 1922.
It became the United Protestant Church to combine their faith under one roof, added Berg, who also grew up in the church.
Its Gothic-style architecture – with oak paneling, stained glass – mimics that of many churches, which bears the shape of a cross inside, he said.
In the sanctuary of the church, pastors emeritus Ernie Strandberg and Peter Bagley made their way to the altar, along with the reverends. Charlotte Frantz and Glen Harrington-Hall.
“You don’t wait for someone to ask you to do something,” Bagley said.
“You see a need and that for a pastor is a joy. As Ernie said, “It’s not the building, it’s you who make it what it is.”
A video of the extraction and opening of the time capsule was projected onto the altar. Its content was as much about the neighborhood and the country as it was about the church.
An American flag with 48 stars. A copy of the DNT dated September 9, 1921 which read: “Enraged men are looking for a despicable murderer.
A Morgan Park bulletin of September 8, 1921 reports the departure of librarian Miss Florence Johnson; the start of a neighborhood chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star; the popularity of Wednesday clubhouse dances; and “the cornerstone of the new building of the United Protestant Church must be laid”.
Mike and Marna Fasteland were among the group present for the opening of the time capsule and for its cornerstone return, which included a small Bible that survived the first 100 years, copies of the News Tribune and The New York Times, a popular donut recipe, and a Sunday newsletter, among others.
After the loss of St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church in 2017, UCC is one of the last community-focused buildings, Mike Fasteland said.
“It’s the first thing you see when you walk into Morgan Park, and it’s the first thing anyone has seen in 100 years,” he added.
Devotees and leaders recently launched a fundraiser to restore the front tower, which has several leaking issues. The church hosts several events a year – a clearance sale, an Olive Garden dinner, a 5k/2.5km run – with all proceeds going to the building.
Looking ahead, there is hope for church leaders to find ways for the ministry to better adapt to an ever-changing neighborhood, Marna Fasteland said.
With the construction of a 60-unit apartment complex in the current H&H Exports home, there is an opportunity to make more connections. “It’s an influx of people and families that we can contact and try to find something that we can do together that would benefit the whole community,” she added.
Among the internal changes is the September start of their new pastor Mitchell Nelson, who came after the church was without permanent leadership for about nine months.
With it came a sense of calm, Fasteland said. “His commitment to his faith…helps us grow.”
In a recent Church newsletter, Nelson wrote, “There is a lot going on here in the living spirit of this Church. I just want to acknowledge that and give of myself to that spirit as a new person with a positive outlook for the future.
“The United Protestant Church is a special sacred place.”
During communion, Kathy Behm and Shirley Letica buzzed around the room, helping with the meal. After a strong spiritual experience during her first visit, Letica keeps coming back.
“I love how I feel when I come to church here,” she said.
Phoebe Olson, 9, ate hot dogs with her mother, Jonelle Olson, and her neighbor, Summer Pietrowski, 10. Phoebe said the time capsule reminded her of the one she and her family made.
Theirs contains Legos, a rubber duck and their feelings written down at the start of the pandemic, Jonelle Olson said. They don’t normally attend UCC, but Olson, who is on the Morgan Park Community Club board, wanted to participate.
Sitting with Cari Elliott, she recalled how Chet Johnson’s daughter was her first Sunday school teacher.
Elliott, 33, moved back to Duluth, and Morgan Park in particular, about seven years ago. Sitting in the downstairs lobby, she fondly recalls the Sunday School move to this space. When asked how she felt coming back here, she paused.
“I don’t know if I think it’s a comeback. I feel like I’ve always been here. I came home from college. My grandmother was an animator for many years; she always sang in the choir. So it wasn’t really leaving and coming back for me,” she said.
In addition to attending services, helping out with various jobs like 5K church and Halloween carnival (trunk or treat during COVID), Elliott said that in addition to worship and service, she also does martial arts at church on weeknights.
“The hospital is no longer there; the original fellowship club is no longer there; the grocery store, the school, the big catholic church were demolished years ago. It’s the only piece left,” she said.
To contribute to fundraising efforts, visit unitedprotestantchurch.org.