When the Rev. Verda Aegerter drove to a small-town Minnesota church to fill in as pastor one Sunday in the 1980s, only one member of the congregation greeted her. Others had stayed away after hearing that a female pastor would be presiding over the service, the parishioner told her.
Aegerter performed the service anyway — a private liturgy for the only woman who showed up that day. She told her daughters the story with a smile.
It was typical of the grace, strength and humor Aegerter showed in much of her life, her daughters said.
Aegerter, the first female pastor at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, died May 18. She was 98.
"She really started something," said longtime friend and church member Bobbie Keller. "We've had several women pastors ever since."
Family and friends remember Aegerter as a gentle and soft-spoken leader who visited the sick, taught Bible study, led new-member classes, preached occasionally and presided over countless baptisms, weddings and funerals. She was on staff at the church for 24 years — first as a deaconess and then as an ordained elder — and continued as an active member after retirement, well into her 90s.
After growing up in rural Calhoun County, Iowa, Verda Wright married farmer Harold Aegerter in 1936.
In 1954, her husband died in a farm accident. With three children at home, ages 16, 15 and 10, she and her brother-in-law finished the next harvest with the help of neighbors. Then she moved her family to Ames, Iowa, where she eventually enrolled at Iowa State College and graduated the same day as her son. She also was youth director at First United Methodist Church in Ames.
Encouraged by families at that church to continue her studies, she pursued a master's degree in religious education at Drake University in the 1960s. She was the only woman in her master's program, daughter Beverly Power said.
"There was one African-American gentleman, and they formed their own minority committee." It wasn't a serious group, Power added: "They just became really good friends."
Aegerter earned a master of divinity from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in 1977, and was ordained in 1978.
A Twins fan and lifelong reader, Aegerter was a member of the church library committee and helped assemble a book on the history of the church. She also wrote some self-published books. She always encouraged education, friends and family said.
Power, of Seaside, Calif., said her mother was a nonjudgmental listener. When confronted with problems or life decisions, she didn't tell her children what to do, but told them to make a list of pros and cons, then supported their choices.
Power remembers telling her mother about 10 to 15 years ago that she admired her mental sharpness and lifelong love of learning.
"I told her that I really wanted to be like her when I got to be her age," Power said. "She looked me in the eye and she said, 'Why wait?' "
In her later years, as Aegerter found herself presiding over the funerals of her friends and colleagues, she told her family, "I guess I just have to get younger friends," recalled daughter Evelyn Baldwin of Rock Rapids, Iowa.
Aegerter is also survived by son John Aegerter, of Grants Pass, Ore. All three of her children and all seven of her surviving grandchildren are college graduates. She is also survived by seven great-grandchildren.
Services have been held.