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Elmer Forsberg and Covington Bethany Lutheran Church

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By Jeff Huebner

Visitors driving along US-141 through tiny Covington, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, could be forgiven for not looking twice at the quaint, simple, well-kept, white church nestled in evergreens, whose steeple dominates an unincorporated

rural town with few other signs of life. There’s the shoebox post office (ZIP 49919), the Covington Township Historical Museum (in the old Town Hall), the long-vacant Seppala general store, the Marathon gas station at the M-28 junction (home to the Hard Wood Café), several houses, and that’s about it. Viewed from the outside, you’d think Bethany Lutheran Church was like scores of other Lutheran churches founded by Finnish immigrants in the Upper Peninsula at the turn-of-the-last-century—indeed, like the thousands, perhaps, that still grace the rural and urban American landscape. You might think Covington residents, the descendants of miners, woodmen, and homesteaders, had no sense of artistic appreciation or adornment.

But you’d be wrong. Step inside the little, 20-pew worship space, and you’ll know why the century-old Baraga County building—with its unusual altar-painting, woodwork, carvings, metalwork, and stained glass—was once called “the most artistic Finnish church in America” by an Upper Peninsula newspaper in the 1930s. Writing in a 1932 article, Chicago Tribune art critic Eleanor Jewett predicted that it would become “a Mecca for many of the tourists and sightseers who annually visit the Michigan peninsula.”

The Midwest’s leading newspaper was interested for good reason: a group of Chicago artists, led by School of the Art Institute professor and Finnish consul Elmer A. Forsberg, remodeled and decorated the church in the 1930s, transforming a bare, plain interior into a warm, wondrous chapel with rural Finnish-style Art Deco effects. The artists, helped by men from the congregation, did it all for free.

Covington—founded in 1893 and said to be named by a local trapper fond of whiskey made in Covington, Kentucky — refuses to go the route of many Upper Peninsula communities buffeted by boom-and-bust cycles in mining, logging, and lumbering. Although young people continue to leave for career opportunities in cities—the township’s population peaked at 1,100 in the 1930s and is now about half that. This largely agricultural center has been reinvigorated in recent years by proud, community-minded volunteers, both longtime residents and retirees returning to their roots, who are working together to ensure that the town never vanishes from the map.

In 1999, for instance, townsfolk inaugurated the Finnish Music Festival, which is staged every Fourth of July weekend at the new Covington Pavilion on the state highway. It regularly attracts the area’s finest Finnish-influenced musicians and a thousand spectators. “A lot of things are happening because of the music festival,” said Marge Kantola, president of the Covington Parks and Recreation Committee. “Now people know where we are,” and they say, “Covington people know how to make things happen.” (The festival is run by the Upper Peninsula Ethnic Music Alliance).

The Bethany Lutheran Church is also becoming less of a local secret. A few years ago, after decades of quiet stewardship, residents began giving church tours during the music festival. In 2004, they succeeded in designating Bethany a Baraga County Cultural Heritage Preservation Site, one of twenty chosen in a program that includes two informational kiosks and numbered markers.

“We don’t have tourist-oriented sites,” said Denver Leinonen, a retired Michigan schoolteacher, and “the church is the most historic point of interest we have locally.” Leinonen returned to his family home in 2000 and, together with his wife, Patricia, co-founded the Covington Historical Museum.

To view the church interior, you’re advised to call or write ahead—specifically to Kantola, who’s taking a year off from her longtime duties as church council secretary.

She’s quick to point out she’s not a true “Yooper”*—she was part of Detroit’s Finnish community for some 50 years, where she met and married her husband Bill, a Covington native. They moved north after he retired in 1987. “People told me to get busy in the church and the community, and you’ll be all right,” said Kantola, “and that’s the way it happened!”

During a recent summer visit, this reporter was met in the church basement by Kantola, along with other six other congregants. (Currently, Bethany Lutheran Church is without a minister, and Rev. Scott Williams of the United Lutheran Church of L’Anse is filling in as interim pastor.) Over snacks and coffee, Kantola and the others related stories and showed me photographs, scrapbooks, and church chronicles, including an old, hand-bound, Finnish-written “table book” that recorded the names of the original sixteen families from the local temperance society who founded the congregation in 1900. Several of the people the day I was there remarked that “Everyone in Covington is related.”

None, unfortunately, had memories that went as far back as the fabled 1930s reconstruction under Professor Forsberg’s direction. But two, Roy Norman and Elsie Felix, were descendants of those who had worked with Art Institute designers.

Norman said that a grandfather, Oskar Hakkarainen, a blacksmith for 67 years, helped with the metalwork. Felix, who lives in Dearborn Heights but maintains the family home in Covington, said that her grandfather, Joonas Wisuri, helped with the carpentry, as did other farmers. It’s clear that Bethany’s 80 current members (from a peak of over 320 in the early 1920s) have protected and treasured its legacy as a wellspring of family and community life.

Helen Lepola, 72, is the fourth of seven maternal generations (and six paternal) that have worshipped at Bethany Lutheran Church. Her late mother, Elsie Manninen Jackson Keranen, was baptized here in 1912. “It was important to her for her children and grandchildren—and now great-grandchildren—to be part of church activities,” said Lepola of nearby Watton. “She served as church council treasurer for 28 years, until 2005, and she certainly instilled in me the significance of the volunteer work I did.”

Following other immigrant groups, Finns began arriving in Copper Country in the 1870s to work the mines and forests. According to late township historian William Kallio, the Covington area was first settled by French Canadians in the 1880s, although, by the 1920s, the town was almost entirely Finnish and Swedish. As forests were logged, farming became more widespread. Finns came from lumber camps, sawmills, and copper and iron mines, as well as from the homeland, to raise dairy cattle and crops such as potatoes. They also built roads and rail tracks, often mining or logging seasonally. Today, Covington Township is predominantly inhabited by families of Finnish ancestry, and the lumber industry provides the largest source of income.

Members of the Rauhan Koti (Home of Peace) Evangelical Lutheran Church joined the Suomi Synod, and then raised a 36-foot-long building, for $533.95, on land donated by the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway in 1908. (The church would not be renamed Bethany until 1950.) Those who opposed joining the Finland-connected synod founded their own congregation affiliated with the America-based Finnish National Church. It’s now called the Trinity Lutheran Church and is still located a mile west of town.

Additions and modifications of Bethany Lutheran Church were made through the next two decades, including a steeple built by member Viktor Ikkelä in 1913 (with a vote of 10-6.) In 1931, Elmer Alexander Forsberg was conducting a painting school at his summer cottage on nearby Vermilac Lake. According to The Art Institute of Chicago Weekly News Letter (June 18, 1932), Forsberg visited the church one day and “at once noted the vacant [altar] space, which seemed silently sending forth an appeal to be utilized.” The result was Bethany’s spectacular altar-painting depicting The Last Supper. His students studied the interior and suggested other improvements.

Forsberg’s granddaughter, Leslie Harris, a former artist and foreign-language teacher who lives near Dallas, Texas, never knew her grandfather. But she recalled hearing stories from her late father Neils Forsberg about how he “grew up” with his father’s students in Covington. “[Elmer Forsberg] would take his students up there every summer and they would just paint and draw,” said Harris, who spent summers at the cottage into her suburban-Chicago high school years in the 1960s. (The log cabin which Forsberg dismantled, moved across the lake ice, and rebuilt was originally constructed in the 1860s. It’s still occupied today, though it hasn’t been in the family since 1989.)

When Forsberg offered to make the planning of Bethany’s interior an Art Institute project without charge, the congregation — then led by the long-serving Rev. F.W. Kaskinen—gratefully accepted. The church formed a nine-member building committee, headed by merchant William Seppala. Included in their plans, was their intention to lengthen the building with an apse to house an altarpiece.

Forsberg, then 48, was best known for his Finnish and American landscapes and portraits. Not only was he one of Chicago’s most renowned painters at the time, but he was also head of the Department of Drawing and Painting at the School of the Art Institute. In addition, he was Consul of Finland for the Midwest (until 1942). He was born in 1883 in the working-class shipping district of Yxpila (now Ykspihlaja) in the largely Swedish-speaking municipality of Gamlakarleby (since 1977, Kokkola), and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1891. They settled in Chicago’s heavily Scandinavian “Little Hill” district on the Near North Side. He worked various jobs, including as an office boy for a Swedish-language newspaper.

Forsberg studied at and graduated from the School of the Art Institute – 1904 to 08 – and it was there he got to know Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, and later Carl Sandburg. He then taught there from 1906—one of his students was Grant Wood-- until 1950, when he died of throat cancer in his home at 5529 N. St. Louis Ave., Chicago. (He married Anna Olivia Sandquist of Finland in 1915; she died in 1951. They had two children, Greta and Neils.) Forsberg exhibited prolifically in Chicago, including at the Art Institute, and throughout the Midwest. In 1923, he was the second American to be knighted by the Republic of Finland. He later led the Finnish war relief effort. In eulogizing Elmer Forsberg, critic Eleanor Jewett stated, “Mr. Forsberg was an honest and sound painter” (Tribune August 27, 1950). “He was a conservative but had no fear of modernism and at times tried out novel efforts with color in broad and enthusiastic strokes…His standards were high and his influence great.”

Back in Chicago, Forsberg, fellow architecture instructor Theodore Hofmeester, Jr., and his student Edward Westervelt drew up remodeling plans for the little Covington church; Forsberg’s students designed many of the decorative features. J. Theodore Johnson—who later became a well-known painter in his own right – created the church altar-painting. Measuring 8’ X 12’, this oil triptych depicting Christ’s last meal, is a lively, dramatic scene that was exhibited at the Art Institute in the summer of 1932 before it was shipped north. The painting along with the new apse and two adjoining rooms were dedicated at the 1932 Christmas service. (Johnson would go on to create WPA murals in Oak Park and Chicago and to teach at San Jose State College, California.)

Following Art Institute blueprints, work at Bethany continued into the next year. Blacksmith Victor Kanerva fashioned four wrought-iron chandeliers (from stovepipe) and a unique diamond-shaped, stainless steel candelabra. Wood craftsmen built the pulpit, altar table, chancel rail, and paneling. The millwork was donated by Charles E. Carson, a Swedish-Finn immigrant who owned a Chicago construction firm and whose summer home was next to Forsberg’s. Two students known only as Miss Sterling and Miss Tufts carved the intricate, six-foot-tall cedar chancel posts showing images of St. Peter and St. John. However, Leslie Harris believes her grandfather had a hand in shaping them.

Impressed by the town’s industry at the height of the Depression, Forsberg got the Abraham Schuler Art Glass Co. of Chicago to design (and also donate) the six stained glass windows, four of which have curiously secular medallions representing local trades: a plow for the farmers, an axe for the woodsmen, a trowel for the masons, and an anvil and hammer for the blacksmiths. The church was rededicated on August 13, 1933, in a ceremony attended by clergy, politicians, artists, and architects. The total rebuilding cost: $1,750.

“The Covington congregation has now a unique church, transformed by artists’ genius and skill into a beautiful shrine,” wrote Armas K.E. Holmio in a 1958 chronicle of the church. Holmio—a history professor and archivist at Suomi College (now Finlandia University) in Hancock – was also Bethany’s pastor from 1953 to 1962. (Regular services in English were held from that time forward.) In 1967, Holmio published (in Finnish) his epic tome History of the Finns in Michigan, re-issued in English several years ago by Wayne State University Press. (Armas Holmio died in 1977.)

Aarne Holmio, of Escanaba, said that his father was a Finnish-service “supply pastor” who’d been inside many Copper Country churches. “He was close-mouthed, but he was impressed by Bethany,” recalled Aarne, who married a Covington native in the church in 1956. “The Lutherans never went in much for ornate carving, especially in small rural churches. It struck me as looking more like an Anglican chapel.”

Forsberg visited his homeland regularly on art study trips between 1911-1925 and later in his role as a Finnish consul. He befriended most of the country’s creative giants: National Romantic painters such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Albert Edelfelt, and Pekka Halonen as well as composer Jean Sibelius and architect Eliel Saarinen. (Forsberg invited Gallen-Kallela to Chicago as part of a 91-piece retrospective of the artist’s work. The show was held at the Art Institute in 1923-1924.) It is likely that during his travels Forsberg saw many of Finland’s newer church interiors adorned with the works of modern artists and consequently sought to bring that vision to Bethany.

It has been over two decades since Leslie Forsberg Harris has seen the church where she and two of her kids were baptized. But the spirit of her grandfather’s art hasn’t left her—literally. Years ago, she inherited many of his works from her mother Eileen, which fill up her family home. “It’s like living in a museum—he was very prolific,” she said, and so she can imagine how Bethany’s worshippers must feel. The “bulk” of Forsberg’s art, maybe 200 pieces, Harris guessed, was passed down to Forsberg’s daughter Greta Owen, who lived on a Wyoming ranch and died in the 1970s; it has disappeared, according to family members. Neils died in 1988; Eileen, 2001.

It is hard to see Forsberg’s studio works. Some are in permanent collections—the Art Institute, the Union League Club of Chicago—or, more properly, in permanent storage. The Elmer A. Forsberg Collection, in the Art Institute’s Ryerson and Burnham Library Archives, is a large bound portfolio that includes black and white photographic prints of many paintings, mostly portraits. In a 1989 letter to a Northwestern University librarian, Leslie Harris’ mother stated, “Neils asked the Art Institute to have an exhibit of Elmer’s paintings in 1983, the year of his 100th birth date, but they refused—I guess they are almost completely ‘mod’ by now.”

Still, just before the selling the Vermilac Lake cottage in the late 1980s, Eileen donated to Bethany a 1943 Forsberg painting that showed the town of Covington dominated by the church. It still hangs in the vestibule (built 1967). It is one of only two known Forsberg paintings extant in the state; the other, Birches, is in the collection of Finlandia University.

Since the Suomi Synod’s merger with the Lutheran Church in America in 1963 – now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – there have been many changes for Bethany Lutheran. Dwindling membership, due to economic decline and increased mobility, has created financial strains and necessitated the recent sale of the parsonage. In spite of this, residents have continued to safeguard the unique 1930s character of the church interior. The mural was restored by 1990, and by 2000, when Bethany celebrated its centennial, committee co-chairs Marge Kantola and Helen Lepola hired a firm to conserve the buckling stained glass windows. The woodwork has also been refinished.

Kantola said she has looked into the possibility of nominating Bethany Lutheran Church for the Michigan Historic Marker Program, which could add it to the State Register. But the council deemed the potential $2,000-$3,000 marker cost too prohibitive. Nonetheless, Bethany Lutheran Church remains the cornerstone of Covington’s Finnish heritage renewal.

“We all take our quaint little church for granted,” said Lepola. “We don’t appreciate all the beauty until others want to come and see it.”

  • Web site: here
  • Marge Kantola can be reached at 906-355-2174 or mkantola@jamadots.com
  • Thanks also to Helen Lepola for translations of selected 1930s church council minutes, June Pelo for genealogical research, and Gary Kaunonen of the Finnish American Historical Archive and Museum for additional assistance.
  • Photos were provided by Mrs. Nancy Besonen, Covington MI.


Sources

  • The Art Institute of Chicago Weekly News Letter, June 18, 1932.
  • Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church, chronicles, 1958, 1990, 2000.
  • Elmer A. Forsberg Collection, Art Institute of Chicago Archives.
  • Holmio, Armas K.E. History of the Finns in Michigan, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2001. Translated by Ellen Ryynanen. (Orig. published, Suomi College, 1967.)
  • Iron River Reporter (weekly newspaper). “Art Students Transform Small Church Into Shrine.” No date, 1933.
  • Jewett, Eleanor. “Art Institute Students Turn Abilities to Painting Canvas for Church in Michigan Village,” Chicago Sunday Tribune, June 26, 1932.
  • Kallio, William. Covington Centennial 1893-1993. (Township of Covington, booklet.)

The Author

Jeff Huebner is a Chicago-based freelance art journalist and author who’s written or co-written several books on Chicago-area community murals. His articles have appeared in dozens of local and national publications, including ARTnews, Sculpture, Public Art Review, Landscape Architecture, Labor’s Heritage, New Art Examiner, and Illinois Super Lawyers as well the Chicago Reader, Chicago magazine, and the Chicago Tribune. He is a frequent visitor to Finland, where he’s researching a series of articles on art and nature.

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