Without bothering to look, thousands of Vikings fans will plod past a red-stone fortress of a church today on their way in and out of U.S. Bank Stadium. At nearly 130 years old, First Covenant Church still stands on the corner of 7th Street and Chicago Avenue S. — a long punt from today’s Vikings home game against Indianapolis.
When it comes to magnetic superstars and improbable late-game drives, the old church’s narrative rivals anything that might occur across the street in the new football palace.
Built in 1887 as the Swedish Mission Tabernacle, the building’s 2,500 seats made it the largest meeting hall in town. Dwarfing the wooden livery stables and other humble structures of the neighborhood, the 107-by-107 square foot castle was the brainchild of a wildly popular, Swedish-born preacher and zealous converter of souls named Erik August Skogsbergh.
A tiny man of 117 pounds, he rode around on horseback during the frigid January of 1884, raising the required $5,000 in three weeks to build the massive worship hall before a February deadline imposed by church elders.
“It’s kind of a hoot,” said the Rev. Dan Collison, the church’s current senior pastor. “A group of old stodgy Swedes didn’t want to go into debt and they said if he can’t raise $5,000, it’s not God’s will.”
Skogsbergh was born in 1850 near Arvika, Sweden — the son of a nail factory owner. At 26, he emigrated to America. The Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Association of Chicago wooed him to minister to the burgeoning number of newly arrived Swedes. Before long, he was making regular pilgrimages to Minnesota — where the number of Swedes mushroomed from 4,000 to 16,000 between 1877 and 1884.
The mostly poor Swedes worked largely as laborers and maids. And they liked what they heard from the little Swedish pastor.
“Though unheralded and almost unknown, he has created an interest among the people of his own nationality unparalleled in this community,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported in 1877. “Young, talented, enthusiastic and independent. … It is impossible to state how many converts are the result of his endeavors here, but they are numerous. …”
Skogsbergh would preach the gospel every night and three times on Sunday. Before long, Minneapolis Swedes persuaded him to leave Chicago and relocate here. In 1884, the pastor agreed to take over the Minneapolis church on one condition: Members build a new, larger church. By then, he had married Mathilda Peterson and they had three of their eventual 11 children in tow.
“A rather severe Minnesota winter received us,” Skogsbergh wrote in his memoir, translated from Swedish. He quickly met with the church committee to assess its fundraising.
“With sorrow and a downcast spirit, the brethren reported that they had not succeeded at all, simply because they expected me to take hold of the matter when I arrived,” he wrote. “Now I understood very well that I had gotten an elephant on my back.”
If he couldn’t collect $5,000 by the congregation’s February meeting, “It would be seen as if it were not God’s will to build on this lot.”
Raising $5,000 in three weeks is akin to collecting $133,000 in today’s dollars. Skogsbergh hired horses and made his rounds. “One day I got hold of a balky horse that wanted to turn around and go home, which made me wonder whether it was Satan or God who sought to hinder us. But nothing could hinder us now.”
His biographer, Erik Dahlhielm, wrote in 1951: “Only a man of Skogsbergh’s inexhaustible energy and utter disregard for obstacles would have tried to raise $5,000 in three weeks among a group of common laborers, coachmen and servant maids … And only a man of his magnetic personality could have succeeded. Day after day, and in a temperature well below the zero mark, he traveled up and down the snowbound streets.”
Skogsbergh said: “We hardly dare look at the list” to see how much they raised each day. But when the February meeting came, they counted $5,500 or 10 percent of the $55,000 total for the land and construction. That would put the total project cost near $1.5 million in today’s dollars.
“It was evident that it was God’s will that the Tabernacle should be built” on the corner of 7th Street and what would become Chicago Avenue, Skogsbergh wrote.
The new church became “the scene of many gatherings of citywide interest,” Dahlhielm wrote. “Great explorers, scientists and statesmen, as well as greater preachers, have spoken from its platform.”
The Rev. Jeremy Berg, who founded the MainStreet Covenant Church in Mound, has researched Skogsbergh extensively and built a website in his honor at swedishmoody.wordpress.com. One of his favorite tales reflects the electricity buzzing through Skogsbergh sermons.
“Once while he was preaching, the crowds were packed so tightly into the tabernacle, that the balcony began to give way and sunk down a whole 2 inches, so that the doors underneath were jammed shut,” Berg said.
Skogsbergh went on to convert a home on Lake Minnetonka’s West Arm Bay near Mound into a popular revival gathering spot that summertime congregants reached by barge and steamboat. After nearly 25 years in Minneapolis, the itinerant preacher headed to Seattle for a few years before returning to Minnesota. He spent much of his later years at what he called his “lair,” a homestead on Lake Superior near Duluth.
He died in 1939 and is buried at Lakewood Cemetery.
“Skogsbergh — the pioneer, the shepherd, the evangelist, the man of God — has been called home,” said the Rev. Gustaf Johnson, who took over the Swedish Tabernacle. “A monument will probably mark the place where his body rests, but thousands of fires he kindled all over the land will outshine any block of stone no matter how finely polished. …”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.