Monday, January 27, 2014

Last service at Zion Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1908-2014

Zion Lutheran Church (ELCA), 6307 - 4th Ave., in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge neighborhood, held its last worship service yesterday, Jan. 26. At one time New York City was home to the second-largest Norwegian community in the world, between Oslo and Bergen. Most of them lived in Brooklyn, and many lived in Bay Ridge, located near the Gowanus Canal and almost literally in the shadow of today's Verrazano Bridge.

Zion Lutheran Church [Google street view from *NYC-AGO website]

Zion was founded in 1908 as one of several Norwegian neighborhood parishes in Brooklyn. But as Norwegian-American families moved out of Bay Ridge, they were replaced by a multicultural inner-city neighborhood of Chinese, Italian and more recently a variety of Middle Eastern ethnicities. And, as happens with so many inner-city churches, Zion's congregation dwindled away over the years.

Founders of the church were my grandfather, Pastor Johan Ellertsen, and ___________. The picture at left below shows him in 1908, the year Zion was founded and three years after Norway became an independent nation [note flag in picture]. He remained at Zion until ____, when he left to take parishes in Minnesota and Massachusetts, and returned to Zion in the 1920s to officiate at the Norwegian-language services until his death in 1939.

Several of my cousins, Pastor Ellertsen's grandchildren, accompanied by several of their children and grandchildren, were able to attend the service and to sing a chorale, "Now Rest Beneath Night's Shadow" [Nun ruhen alle Wälder] with words by Paul Gerhardt to a melody by Heinrich Isaac.

Click here to hear it sung as a congregational hymn in German by the Große Kreuzgemeinde [Greater church of the Holy Cross] choir of Hermannsburg in Lower Saxony; here as arranged by Bach and performed by the St.-Johannis-Kantorei choir in the Baltic coast city of Rostock; and here for background posted earlier to this blog about the secular song "Innsbruck, ich muß dich lassen" on which the chorale melody is based.

My cousins have given me permission to post their pictures and descriptions of the event in this space, including one of Pastor Ellertsen's descendants who were able to gather for the occasion, including grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-grandchildren, at left below, and one of his grandchildren, at right below. Four other grandchildren in Minnesota, Illinois and Norway were unable to attend.

"Yesterday was such a moving experience at Zion," my cousin Christine said in an email. "As John mentioned yesterday, our grandparents were there at the inception of the church and their family was there at its closing – like bookends. We have been given a rich legacy!"

I think the pictures hint at that legacy. I think they also show more Norwegian sweaters than I'm accustomed to seeing at the same time in the same place!

From an email my cousin Anne sent Monday (today) to family members:

We knew the church that John’s grandfather founded in Brooklyn was going to close, but the pastor gave us only a week’s notice that the final service was yesterday. John scrambled to let everyone know. Before the service folder was printed, John had corralled a choir of relatives to sing a chorale. We converged on Bay Ridge from NY, NJ, and PA in a snow squall. John found a stairwell where we could run through the music. Sounded good there!

Johan Ellertsen (John’s mother’s father) founded the church 105 years ago. I had him with me, tucked in my pocketbook – actually a picture from Cousin Peter on the tablet. Someone found a link with a living person, a woman whose parents were the second couple to be married by Rev. Ellertsen in the new church. All during the long service, I was very aware of this man none of us had ever met. Surely he would have been pleased with his living legacy. He had been a cantor in Bergen, a musical man with a beautiful voice. At the front of the church singing the anthem were three of his grandchildren with spouses, three great granddaughters, and several great greats. There were six great great grandchildren there, not all singing with our little family choir.

I’m not sure what brand of Lutheran this church ended up, but they had a ritual I’d never seen before. They put water in the baptismal font, blessed it, and had the bishop sprinkle the congregation with the water. Surely that’s as close to holy water as a Lutheran could get! It was meant to be a visual reminder of our baptism, and it wasn’t something that was done at regular services. At the end of the service there were prayers for various things such as the candles, communion set, formal record book of the congregation, etc. Everyone felt compassion for the 16 people who would be looking for a new church home, but the service was not maudlin.

We were invited to stay for the buffet meal afterwards. We tucked ourselves off to the side where we could observe the family reunion going on. This was a last gathering of many people who had belonged to that church through the years. Our kinship was merely historical. We noticed many Norwegian sweaters, showing the connection to Europe in a graphic way. …

I'm not sure it has much relevance here, but a letter follows that I wrote to Pastor Diane Wildow last week. Perhaps a researcher studying the history of immigrant congregations will Google into it in future years and find something in it of interest:

Yesterday I learned that Zion will be closing at the end of the month. I wish I could attend your final worship service since my paternal grandfather, Pastor Johan Ellertsen, was a co-founder of the church, but I am unable to do so on short notice. Please know, however, that you and the members of your congregation are in our prayers at this time of sadness and transition.

While I have rarely visited New York City and don’t remember ever attending services at Zion, I feel like it is part of my heritage and in some way I am a product of its ministry – even though two generations have passed by now and I am living a thousand miles away in Illinois.

My father, Birger W. Ellertsen, was baptized at Zion in 1913 and grew up in parishes of the old Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod in the Midwest and in Brooklyn. But his career took him to rural Tennessee as a young man, and there he stayed for 50 years. Therefore when I was growing up, there were no Lutheran churches we could attend; however, we joined an Episcopal church with a similar liturgy, and I grew up listening to LPs of Bach organ preludes and Reformation chorales along with 10-inch vinyl recordings of the St. Olaf Choir.

More importantly, when I joined a Lutheran church rather late in life – as my mother moved to Illinois after my father’s death – I began to recognize that some of the more important attitudes and ethical standards I grew up with had their origin in Luther’s Small Catechism. In a sense, joining a Lutheran church was like a homecoming. (In more ways than one! Several members of our congregation in Springfield are Norwegian-Americans from Iowa and the Dakotas, and at times we sound like the news from Lake Wobegon.) In the meantime, I am reacquainting myself with the rich heritage of Lutheran hymnody.

When Dad died in 1997, he left me his copy of Bestefar’s [Norw.: grandfather's] 1913 Lutheran Hymnary. When I retired from college teaching, I wanted to find out more about it, and that led me by degrees to researching the musical heritage of Scandinavian immigrants in the Midwest. We had more Swedes than Norwegians in our part of the country (and I married a Swede from northern Illinois), so now I am learning about the old Swedish-American Augustana Synod and its contributions to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as well. I have begun to demonstrate a musical instrument called the psalmodikon that 19th-century pastors used to teach four-part harmony singing, and I am working up a proposal on Lutheran immigrant hymnody for a historical symposium here in the state capital. I think there is a story here that needs to be shared more widely.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m convinced that Zion Lutheran Church has touched people’s lives in incalculable ways over the years, not only in the neighborhood you have served in Brooklyn but also very indirectly at times, as in my case. I am grateful that Zion is part of my heritage, and I am sure it will continue to enrich people’s lives in ways that none of us can even begin to imagine for many years to come.

Again, you and the congregation at Zion are in my thoughts and prayers.

According to the New York City chapter of the American Guild of Organists the organ at Zion was built in 1937 by Geo. Kilgen & Son of St. Louis. Located in the back of the sanctuary, it can be seen in the picture immediately above. Details in another picture, not included here, show a hymnboard for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany displaying Nos. 250, 7[?]3. 668, 451, 474 44[7?] and 229.

[* I obtained the Google street view photo at the top of this post, along with details about the organ, from the American Guild of Organists' website at]

I Googled into this Yelp review while I was looking for photos of Zion: It was posted Nov. 14, 2013, by Yelp user Bree S.: "I have volunteered here on several Saturdays when they hold the Soup Kitchen to feed the homeless and hungry. Let me tell you, you will not find more compassionate people than here in this church. Gene, Mary, the pastor, and everyone else involved are incredibly kind and caring. Returning back to volunteer after quite a while, I felt completely welcomed and like I revisited my long lost family. The staff knows the names of the people who come to eat and always welcome them with a smile. They are incredibly generous. Before everyone eats, Gene holds a prayer and asks the people if they have anyone in particular they would like to pray for. Also, the kitchen always has extra food to hand out for the more needy. Lastly, I would like to say that volunteering here has definitely changed my perspective on life and how I care for other people. Volunteering at the Zion Luthern Church has made me a more benevolent and selfless person and I thank them for that."


David Anderson said...

Wonderful article. Mange tusen tak! Such a vibrant congregation for so many years, and it has a great legacy in the members who have moved on to other locations. We feel certain that the faith that was planted in their lives in those Zion days has gone on to grow. Zion has been a blessing to many and those blessings continue to be witnesses.

Dave and Louise Anderson
Lakeville MN
Dave: intern 196-63
Louise: secretary 1959-63

Marlene said...

I am so sorry to hear the church has closed; my late mother, Gladys M. Marstad, was confirmed there in 1923 by Pastor Helmer Halversen.

SusanVA said...

Working on the family genealogy late last night and finding my maternal aunt's 1921 baptismal certificate from Zion Lutheran Church in Brooklyn led me to your wonderful post. Oh how I wish I found this last year so I could have driven up from Virginia for the last service! My maternal grandmother emigrated from Kragerø, Norway in 1897 when she was 20. She met and married my Swedish grandfather in the U.S. and they raised their seven children in Bay Ridge. Seeing images of the church and listening to the hymns my relatives likely heard brings their life in Brooklyn alive. Thanks so very much for posting.

Bob Williams said...

Great article. I'm a photographer for the Metropolitan New York Synod and I photographed the interior of this church, and two others, for their archives one last time before it was sold. You can see the photos here -