Most of the original members of Zion Lutheran Church came directly from or were sons and daughters of Norwegian immigrants while there also were a few Danes and Swedes among them. Many of these immigrants didn’t feel at home with either the tightly structured Norwegian State Church (Norwegian Synod) or with the loosely structured Eielsen Synod. In 1890 at the same time our Zion fathers were organizing two groups which had taken a middle-of-the-road approach , the Norwegian-Danish Lutheran Conference and the Norwegian Lutheran Augustana Synod, combined with the Anti-Missourians, merged to form the United Norwegian Lutheran Church. It is in this merger that we, Zion Lutheran Church, find our roots.Eleven families gathered in the first permanent schoolhouse in the new city of Thief River Falls for a congregational meeting on January 7, 1890, and organized into the Thief River Falls Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, thus becoming the second congregation to organize in Thief River Falls. Pastor Elias Berlie was called to temporarily shepherd this fledgling parish. In 1892 Pastor Hans J. Villesvik consented to act as temporary pastor for the congregation.
Conflicts within the United Norwegian Lutheran Church plus rejection of Augsburg Seminary as the official educating body of the church caused a group of Augsburg sympathizers to formulate a set of principles and rules called “Rules for a Lutheran Free Church (the “Augsburg Venner”). It was to this body that Zion in 1893 pledged its allegiance. This “new free church” exhibited great freedom in congregational leadership thus stabilizing its beginnings as a Lutheran Free Church, Scandinavian in ancestry, but typically American in freedom of choice in organization.
In 1893, when Pastor August Bredeson consented to become the congregation’s first permanent pastor, Zion had only a temporary church home, and not considering a vacant store building purchased by the congregation in 1896, did not buy land until 1900 when it finally decided to build on the “extreme outskirts of the business district” at Horace Avenue and Second Street where the VFW building now stands. In 1902 a store building was moved onto this location and set unto a stone foundation.
On February 11, 1903, the congregation re-incorporated under the name, Zion Church of Thief River Falls, Minnesota. In this same year the tower of the church was finished.
Early in 1907, Pastor Bredeson resigned. Pastor P. Steen served the congregation until Pastor Anton Larson accepted a call to Zion Lutheran in the fall of 1907.
Early in 1916, Pastor Anton Larson resigned and the second of the Pastor’s Larson was called to serve the Zion and Bethlehem congregations. During Pastor George Larson’s pastorate, shortly after World War II, Zion united with Rindahl and Norden congregations in an attempt to furnish the pastor with a salary of $1,200.
Pastor George Larson resigned in the fall of 1925 and Pastor Bredeson acted as a temporary pastor until the summer of 1926 when Pastor E. L. Tungseth accepted the call to serve Zion and three other congregations: Rindahl, Norden and Goodridge.
In the fall of 1940, Zion celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its congregation as a member of the Lutheran Free Church. In 1943 Pastor Tungesth resigned and Pastor G. C .Vaagenes served as interim pastor. Pastor Walter Pedersen began his ministry in October of 1943.
At that time Zion was beginning to feel a space shortage. At the annual meeting in January 1944 the historic motion was made “that a building fund be established with plans to build a new church by 1950” and to make Zion a full-time charge, taking over Goodridge’s share of the pastor’s salary.
Thus began several years of hard work to establish Zion as we know it today. In 1945 the Board of Trustees obtained an option on the Froseth-Larson property at Fifth Avenue and Main Street North.
Zion moved into the basement of its new home in January of 1949 and in August of that year the cornerstone was laid. The first service in the completed sanctuary was held Christmas Day, 1950, and in 1954 the new building was dedicated.
By the mid-1950’s Zion was discussing hiring an assistant pastor and acquiring the property to the north of the church. In 1960 Pastor Walter Pedersen resigned and Pastor Leland Steen joined the staff. In 1961 Mr. Johanne and Mrs. Skarsten arrived to serve as intern pastor and parish worker. A new schedule of services – 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. was approved.
June 19-20, 1965 marked a joyous time with celebration of seventy-five years of Zion’s existence.
In 1965 Neil Hendrickson joined Zion as lay assistant, and Pastor Alex Stoffel began his pastorate as head pastor. In April of that year Zion’s search for an assistant ended when Pastor Lloyd Berger accepted a call.
The 1970’s brought a widening scope to Zion’s ministry with World Day of Peace, Council of St. Paul, a men’s Bible study, live radio broadcasts and an involvement in the local campus ministry and the Billy Graham Crusade.
In the early 1970’s some renovation work was done on the sanctuary. All the walls were repainted, the woodwork and pews were refinished, the large red velvet cloth hanging behind the alter was replaced, new hanging lights were installed, and the tiled floor was replaced by red carpeting.
In 1976, Pastor Alex Stoffel resigned and Pastor Richard Larson was called to Zion. As the church continued its space crunch, the congregation formed a Ministry and Mission Study Committee. After a year long study of the congregation’s mission, the committee proposed changes in the program, organizational structure, and facilities. Zion formed eight boards whose chairman , a church president, two vice-presidents, a secretary and two pastors formed the Parish Planning Council. This new governing body replaced the Zion Church Council. The boards created were Church Properties, Public Relations, Lay Ministry, Parish Fellowship, Youth, Education, Evangelism, and Stewardship.
In 1977, Pastor Jim Mattson joined the pastoral staff. Pastor Walter Pedersen served as visitation pastor and Dilene Nilson (now Spielman) was hired as full-time office secretary.
On a chilly morning in April of 1979, ground was broken for the new dedication wing. The main entrance was moved to the north; the narthex was greatly enlarged and an elevator was installed. Also included in the structure was a library, the Apostle’s Room (so named because of the installation of the stained glass windows moved from the north side of the sanctuary), a small kitchen, four large classrooms, seven smaller classrooms, and a large youth room on the second floor. At the same time the basement auditorium (the Fellowship Hall) was remodeled, the kitchen enlarged, new appliances installed, and a choir rehearsal room provided. The entire building project more than doubled the size of Zion’s facility.
In 1982, the staff moved into beautiful new offices on the second floor of the south wing which had previously accommodated a chapel and Sunday school rooms. The sacristy was converted to a resource center for the Thief River Falls Conference. 1983 saw the remodeling of the basement rooms of the same south wing.
1980 marked the resignation of Assistant Pastor Jim Mattson and hiring of Pastor Roger Hanson. In 1982 Zion welcomed Pastor Cliff Kalmoe.
The decade of the 80’s typically brought new technological changes: a TV camera that enabled television coverage for morning worship on Channel 3, a computer for the office, an update for the public address system, computerized chimes, and a van.
In the wider church arena, Pastor Larson was elected to serve on the ALC Synod Church Council. Zion involved itself in the ALC promotion of “50 More in 84” to fund fifty new mission churches with the American Lutheran Church, and in 1988 it became part of the ELCA, the merging of the American Lutheran Church, The Lutheran Church of America and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church.
In 1990, Zion celebrated 100 years of “strengthening its beliefs and proclaiming to the surrounding community its deep-felt convictions in the life and death of our Lord.” The following decade saw many changes in Zion’s personnel and its physical building and grounds.
1990 saw the resignation of both Pastor Dick Larson and Pastor Cliff Kalmoe and the hiring of Pastor Henry Moyer.
In 1991, Pastor Dennis Raymond joined the staff at Zion. In 1991, Zion also initiated the Stephen Ministry program, a one-on-one caring ministry that continues the work of Stephen in the early church. Initially the two pastors, Dick Larson and Roger Hanson, as well as two parishioners were trained to be instructors. Eventually over fifty Stephen Ministers were given the fifty hours of skills necessary to continue the ministry.
1992 also brought many changes to Zion. Pastor Roger Hanson resigned and Pastor Gary Johnson joined Zion’s staff. Tentmaker, Amy Schulz, was hired on a part-time basis to work with Zion’s youth program. Parishioners were able to worship Wednesday evenings instead of Sunday mornings. The two parsonages to the north of the church were sold and replaced with a parking lot. Zion now occupied a whole city block.
1993 brought Zion the opportunity to sponsor Kermit and Bonnie Solem as missionaries to the Fulani people of Cameroon. Also, upon the resignation of Tentmaker Amy Schulz, it brought a full-time youth director, Berta Peterson Kalsnes on staff.
In 1996, hand bells were purchased and a hand bell choir organized and trained.
In 1997, Zion began a mission partnership with Lord of Grace Lutheran Church in Tucson, Arizona. Lord of Grace signed its charter membership on November 2, 1997 and officially became a part of the church body of the ELCA on January 17, 1999.
1999 saw a major facelift to the sanctuary at Zion. Potente, Inc. of Kenosha, Wisconsin, the same company that designed the sanctuary in the 1970’s, was engaged to supervise the new look. The “old” red damask wall covering and gold medallions were removed and replaced with a light wall covering, glorious sunburst and a new cross. The floor coverings were replaced with marble tile from Italy and light green carpet, new furnaces installed and air conditioning added.
1999 also saw the fruition of plans to begin a Parish Nurse program in Zion. A registered nurse, Sandy Knutson, was hired to involve the congregation in a caring, spiritual, holistic ministry with an emphasis on health.