When Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church marked its 100th anniversary this month, it joined the ranks of its historic neighbors on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. The elegant St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, just a few blocks north, opened its doors in 1910. The towering Basilica of St. Mary was dedicated in 1914 a few blocks farther down.

This small slice of Hennepin Avenue was the epicenter of three major religions during the horse-and-buggy days. The Christian architectural gems drew thousands of faithful every Sunday and still do today.

“It was a time when Minneapolis was growing very fast,” said Judy Zabel, senior pastor at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist. “And this area was a major crossway.”

That, apparently, is one reason why Hennepin Avenue was so attractive to Catholics, Episcopalians and Methodists, who replaced their smaller downtown churches at the turn of the century to make their marks on the city’s western edge.

This sliver of Minneapolis offered the fast-growing denominations ample space to build large houses of worship. One of the fastest growing “suburban” areas at the time was the Lowry Hill district, and all three cathedrals were at its doorstep.

An example of how many people were flocking to churches: Hennepin Avenue Methodist had more than 1,900 adult members packed in its pews in 1916 — and that doesn’t include the kids in Sunday school, Zabel said. That compares with 1,400 adults today.

Plus, the Hennepin Avenue corridor had plenty of parking — for horses and buggies at least. The land now occupied by the Walker Art Center was green pasture, Zabel said. Historic photos show horses grazing there.

For those who preferred steel to stirrups, transportation options abounded.

“Three main [streetcar] lines converge almost at the church door,” according to the booklet, A History of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. “Nearly half of the people of Minneapolis can reach the church by streetcar without changing lines.”

Zabel marvels at how progressive her church was, even then. The smaller downtown church that became Hennepin Avenue United Methodist offered child care services to low-income mothers, meals for the poor, a gymnasium and a library, she said.

By the 1950s, it became one of the first racially integrated churches in Minnesota. The black members of Border Methodist Church in north Minneapolis had to leave their building, and Hennepin Avenue members invited them to join their congregation.

“We had a sign outside that said, ‘All races welcome here,’ ” Zabel said. “And that was in 1957!”

While the three churches may have competed for souls a century ago, they now collaborate on the Downtown Clergy Association and on social justice issues, Zabel said. That includes offering communal meals for the homeless.

“We [the downtown area faith communities] have great respect for one another, and we support each other’s ministries.”


Jean Hopfensperger 612-673-4511