Margaret Stevenson flips open a hefty maroon binder and lifts the thick laminated pages, stuffed with hundreds of black and white photos. We’re meeting in a small, unadorned room in the offices of Trinity Lutheran Congregation on Riverside Avenue. The congregation gathers every Sunday at the chapel on Augsburg College’s campus, but the activities and programs of the congregations are run through these offices. The offices hold records and photos from the congregation’s nearly 150-year history, and Margaret can bring nearly half of that history to life.
Her grandparents came to Minnesota from Norway over a century ago. And like many immigrants, they settled in the bustling Cedar-Riverside neighborhood alongside the Mississippi River. Her grandfather built a house at 2819 8th Street S.—a house which still stands today. Her grandmother thought she’d died and gone to heaven. To come across the ocean with almost nothing—no knowledge of the people, place or language—and quickly have a three-bedroom house with indoor plumbing defied any reasonable expectation. She lived in that house from when it was finished in 1918 until she passed away in 1965.
Margaret’s mother, aunt, and grandmother would walk from the house down Riverside Avenue every Saturday to Strom’s Meat Market to get groceries for Sunday night’s dinner. They didn’t have any refrigeration then, so every few days they had to visit the small specialty grocery stories like Strum’s scattered throughout the West Bank.
Margaret herself never lived in that Riverside Park home, but she’d still go to Strom’s every so often with her mother. They made a point to visit Cedar-Riverside—then known as Snoose Boulevard because of the Swedes and Norwegians who had settled there—early in the day to avoid the loud, occasionally violent drunks in the evening.
In 1868, some of the more pious Norwegians founded Trinity Lutheran Congregation. Throughout the late 19th century, more Norwegians flocked to Minneapolis, and many, like Margaret’s grandparents sought to join a congregation of like-minded Lutherans who spoke the native tongue. Trinity’s space grew increasingly cramped, and in 1896, Trinity built a new church audacious in both size and cost at the intersection of 20th Avenue and 9th. It was a beautiful brick building with extensively detailed stained glass.
If you try to find the church on Google Maps, you won’t find it, though. You also won’t even find the intersection. Cars headed to Minneapolis on the westbound lane of Interstate 94 zoom over the crossroads where the church once stood. In 1966, the city acquired and razed Trinity’s home of 70 years to make way for the highway. The photos Margaret show me in the binder depict men in white shirts and black ties marching down the streets of Cedar-Riverside from that church to their temporary home at Riverside Presbyterian Church, now the People’s Center, after the final service on May 22nd.
Margaret’s mother didn’t march. She had stayed behind at the church after the procession had departed. Margaret says her mother’s identity was tied to that building—baptized, confirmed, married all within its walls. The loss of the building meant a loss of part of herself and she was overcome by grief. Margaret was 23 then, and says she took the destruction for granted. She pauses and looks at the photos again. She now views it as one of the most tragic losses of her life.
Trinity received a sizable payment from Hennepin County for the property, but that money didn’t cover the loss of the intangible sense of place, nor could it replace the very tangible stained glass, lost to the bulldozers, valued at almost $740,000 in today’s dollars.
The day after demolition, a congregation member named Bjorghild Estness gave kids a nickel for every piece of glass they could dig out from the rubble.
I ask Margaret why she’s remained at Trinity all these years. She doesn’t live in the neighborhood—never has—and many of the other older congregation members left to attend other churches outside Minneapolis. Ever since 1966, Trinity hasn’t had a church call its own.
Margaret says she believes in their mission to support to the neighborhood, to meet the needs of those who need the most. The destruction of the old church displaced Trinity, and it could’ve followed the path of other city churches and city dwellers that fled to the suburbs. They discussed that option. The neighborhood had dramatically changed since the days they conducted services in Norwegian.
The epicenter of Minneapolis’ version of the 1960s counter-culturalism found a home in the West Bank. It seemed like there was a different march on something every day. Protesters from PETA and the vegetarian spirit of the day forced Jim Strum out of business. Trinity held Sunday School in the old firehouse, now Mixed Blood Theater, but the vomit and beer cans from the previous night’s revelry by squatters didn’t prove to be a supportive environment for Bible study.
The congregation used their untethered moment amid the neighborhood’s own fluctuations as an opportunity to create consistency, to establish a concrete identity. There had always been a Lutheran presence in the neighborhood; the congregation felt obligated to preserve that legacy and their commitment to Cedar-Riverside, in spite of—or rather because of—the changes. Margaret firmly believes that church isn’t a building, it’s the people and their commitment to God and Cedar-Riverside. Today, Trinity is the oldest continuously operating organization in the Cedar-Riverside area.
New immigrants have come through and left since then. A large portion of the East African community calls the West Bank home now. The University of Minnesota expanded, and urban renewal dramatically altered the physical landscape of the West Bank. Strom’s is long gone, as are most of the co-ops which formed here decades ago. Margaret says the most consistent thing about this neighborhood has been change.