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History of the Vasa Children’s Home (1865-1955)
Translated by Mrs. Dennis M. Lundell
The Vasa Children’s Home is the oldest Home in Minnesota and the Augustana Lutheran Church. It dates back to 1865. In the fall of 1865 Eric Norelius, pioneer pastor, living in Red Wing, visited St. Paul. Friends told him of a family, Mikola Erik Erickson, who had come to St. Paul from Sweden. Shortly after their arrival Mr. and Mrs. Erickson became ill and died, leaving four children. Pastor Norelius was asked if could do something for them and relates that it was a though a voice had told him, “Take them with you home.” He did. The following Sunday he took them along to services which were conducted in the Goodhue County Court House, Red Wing. He told his congregation of the case. An offering was immediately taken to help defray expenses for the care of the children. The next thing was to find a matron and a home for the children.
They were cared for in the basement of the Vasa Church under the supervision of Mrs. Britta Nelson, a Christian school teacher from Stockholm, Wisconsin.
Mrs. Nelson related that poverty dwelt in their midst. At times they lacked both food and clothing. Being in these straightened circumstances caused both the matron and children to depend upon God’s help. She relates that in the middle of winter one year both flour and bread were at an end. “Then I told the children that they must pray fervently or we would have to go out and beg. The children fell upon their knees several times a day. Each time when they arose they sang with such enthusiasm until I almost laughed at them. Evening came and we had only one loaf of break left. The children fell asleep and forgot all about worries. I sat up and mended their clothes. At about 11 o’clock there was a knock on the door a man shouted, “Open the door and you will receive a sack of flour because I am of the opinion that you are out of flour.” I opened and the flour was emptied into the flour barrel, which became nearly filled. When the children came downstairs the next morning they discovered that the flour barrel was filled. Seeing this and thinking of several prayers offered they shouted, “God has been here and given us four.” They firmly believed that such was the case.”
Mrs. Britta Nelson served as matron for four years, from 1865 to 1869. She succeeded by Miss Caroline Magny. At this time a small home was built. In this home Miss Magny worked. Dr. Norelius, speaking of this Home, said, “There you see the first orphanage building, a simple hut, yet warm.” Dr. Norelius had succeeded in buying 10 acres of land for $150. It was on this tract the first and succeeding homes were erected.
For eleven years Dr. Norelius conducted the orphanage himself. As the work developed he found it impossible to carry the responsibility and therefore
offered the institution to the Minnesota Conference at its convention in 1876. The Conference accepted the offer and continued the work in Vasa until 1926. From time to time additional tracts of land were purchased until the Home had a farm of 245 acres.
In 1879 at midnight between July 2nd and 3rd, a terrific cyclone destroyed the Home, sweeping it completely away. Five children died as a result of the storm, three of them being killed outright. Two little infants, in the midst of it all, were found in their cribs in the wreckage perfectly safe. The Conference immediately raised funds and constructed a new home. This third Home was destroyed by fire on January 16, 1899. A small, feeble minded boy had been playing with the matches in one of the clothes closets and some clothing caught fire. The house was totally destroyed. A fourth and larger structure was immediately erected.
Mr. J. A. Hultgren and wife served a superintendent and matron from 1880 to 1888 and again from 1895 to 1905. At this time between 70 and 80 children were cared for at the Home. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Mellin filled the positions of superintendent and matron from 1888 to 1895. Others who had served as superintendent and matron are: Mr. and Mrs. J. E. Hedberg, Mr. and Mrs. C. G. Lind, Mr. and Mrs. O. C. Herbert, Mr. and Mrs. Philips Johnson, Miss Wilhelmina Holmberg, Mrs. Hilda Nelson, Miss Lydia Becklund, Mrs. Anna L. Johnson and the present resident director, Miss Luella Hammerberg. From 1924 to 1951 Dr. L. B. Benson served in capacity of general superintendent of the Home.
School has been maintained at the Home since its early history. Among the earlier teachers may be mentioned J. T. Lindholm, J. A. Dahlin, Miss Hilma Hultgren and Miss Mathilda Briteson. In 1910 Miss Hortense Bodelson, now Mrs. Dennis M. Lundell, served as principal of the school for 16 years teaching the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grades. A new school building was erected and a semi-graded school established. Those who served as primary teachers having charge of grades 1,2,3 and 4 were: Mabel Johnson Anderson, Edith Miller Peterson, Eleda Swanson Johnson, Florence Berg, Esther Olson Berg, Esther Bodin Anderson, Ellen Carlson Erickson and Clara Olson Chellberg. During the summer Bible School was conducted for two months. When the Home moved to Burnside in 1926, the children attended the Burnside Consolidated School.
The children attended services at the Vasa Lutheran Church only a short distance from the Home. Morning and evening devotions were conducted regularly and the children were taught the Christian way of life.
For several weeks during the summer months of 1920 and 1921, twenty children, ten girls and ten boys, were taken on a program tour through several districts of the Minnesota Conference. They were accompanied by the pastor of the Vasa Church, Rev. E. A. Lindgren, the superintendent of the Home, Mr. O. C. Herbert, and the two teachers, Miss Estehr Olson and Miss Hortense Bodelson. Traveling was done in a Ford truck. The children gave programs of sacred songs and recitations in approximately one hundred churches throughout the Conference. Donations received were to be used for the erection of a new building for the children at the Home. The children and personnel were received with much kindness and generosity in all congregations visited.
For several years agitation was carried on to move the Children’s Home from Vasa to Red wing or Twin Cities. A committee was elected by the Minnesota Conference to investigate the proposition. Christmas Eve, 1923, Prof. And Mrs. A. P. Anderson of Burnside offered to donate one half of their 800 acre farm with all buildings thereon for a new site for the Home. This offer was accepted, and the Home retained in this locality on the Conference. This tract of land lies about six miles northeast of Vasa.
In 1926 the present structure housing 50 children and personnel was erected on this new location. The building is fireproof with all modern facilities. April 21, 1926, Dr. C. J. Sodergren, then vice-president of the Conference, conducted religious ceremonies at the ground breaking of the new home. The cornerstone was laid by Crown Prince Gustaf Adolph of Sweden. Thousands of people attended this auspicious occasion. In the presence of a large gathering, the Home was officially opened for the children October 16, 1926.
More than a thousand children have been cared for at the Vasa Home. These children are found in various walks of life. Among them are businessmen, lawyers, pharmacists, soldiers, sailors, farmers, stenographers, teachers and pastors.
God has richly blessed the work of the Home both materially and spiritually. May the spiritual truths taught the children bear fruit to eternal life.
Since September,1954, the Home has cared for mentally retarded children. It continues to be supervised by the Board of Christian Service.
Mr. Morton Bjorkquist is the present superintendent of services to children and aged. The pastor of the Vasa Lutheran Church is chairman of the board of the Vasa Home.
Translated from: “Vasa’s Vision & Victory of a Century 1865-1955”
Source: Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota. For more information about LSS of Minnesota, visit: www.lssmn.org