The Rev. Edwin J. Eilertsen spent more than 45 years empowering people to do positive things with their lives and for their community, and he walked right beside them as they did.
Eilertsen took the message to where people were, standing up for the downtrodden and advocating to make the church a welcoming place for all. In the 1970s, he was one of the first voices to push for the Episcopal Church to open its doors to gays and to allow women to be ordained and hold positions of leadership. He devoted his life to serving people with needs, helping to form a network of group homes for people with developmental disabilities to bring them out of hospitals and into the community.
“He was passionate about social justice because he was passionate about people,” said Philip Brunelle, artistic director of VocalEssence and organist and choirmaster at Plymouth Congregational Church in south Minneapolis where Eilertsen served as interim pastor in 1995 and 1996. “It was important to him that we treat everybody with dignity and love and respect, and therefore, social justice was at the core of what he felt.”
Eilertsen died Saturday of complications from hypertension and late-term dementia. He was 90.
Born in New York City, Eilertsen came to the University of Minnesota after graduating from high school. He sensed his calling to the ministry one night while walking on a bridge on the Minneapolis campus, said Kathleen Eilertsen, of Sonoma, Calif., one of his three daughters. He earned his history degree in 2½ years, then a master’s of divinity from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.
Ordained by the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota in 1952, Eilertsen served as rector of St. Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Minn., and St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Richfield, and worked for the diocese as director of Christian education and the Cass Lake Episcopal Camp.
At St. Martin’s by the Lake Episcopal Church in Minnetonka Beach, he teamed with fellow ministers Russell Ewald and Richard Byrd to form the Church’s Action Program, whose theme was “the mission of the church is in the world.” The program became a catalyst for change and social justice in the church and the community, said his daughter Susan Eilertsen, of Minneapolis.
During his 28 years of ministry at St. Martin’s, his work touched people from all walks of life. He took prominent CEOs of Twin Cities companies on tours of the Holy Land and had strong connections with people in power who became partners in change, said former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
At the same time “he literally would take you by hand down to the AA meeting,” said the Rev. Dave Langille, current rector at St. Martin’s by the Lake. “He was someone who was available to people and answered the call 24/7. His focus was faith formation and he was an exceptional pastor. He was the real deal, and his kind will not come again.”
Known for his warm and welcoming demeanor, Eilertsen often was sought out to perform weddings, doing as many as 50 a year. One was part of a scene in the 1972 romantic comedy “The Heartbreak Kid.”
“He treated everyone equally,” said Kathleen Eilertsen. “He thought everybody could make a valuable contribution to the world — rich, poor, black, white. That’s what his ministry was all about.”
Besides his daughters Kathleen and Susan, Eilertsen is survived by his wife of 65 years, Judy, of Spring Park; a third daughter, Betsy, of Norwood Young America; a brother, Clarence, of Spring Park; and three grandchildren. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, 519 Oak Grove St., Minneapolis.