The Bemidji Seventh-day Adventist Church had its roots in the hearts of two of the original member families who were immigrants from Denmark, bringing their faith with them to America. Andrew S. and Jensena Ruskjer with their first child, Martinus, had immigrated in 1887 and then added six more children to their family after arriving in America. They lived on a farm in the Solway area (just west of Bemidji) and Martinus was especially instrumental in starting the Bemidji church. The other family giving roots to the Bemidji church was the Larsen (Larson) family made up of four brothers – Daniel, David, Christian, and George – who immigrated around 1911-1913. (Note: the Danish spelling of surnames is "sen" however many immigrants changed to an Americanized "son" spelling – David and George changed to "son.") Possibly other early members of the church were immigrants also. The Larsen brothers had left their parents, Lars and Oline (Knutsen) Larsen behind in Denmark – their parents having become Seventh-day Adventists through the efforts of Elder Mattisen, a missionary to Denmark. In addition to being linked in their church building efforts, the Ruskjer and Larsen families were also linked in family ties as George Larson married Karen Petrina Ruskjer and they were lifelong members of the Bemidji SDA Church.
The Bemidji Seventh-day Adventist Church group originally met in homes in the Bemidji area and they also met in Cass Lake for a while. The church was officially organized with 12 members on October 6, 1918, by Elder W. H. Clark, then MN Conference President. The church didn't have a regular pastor until 1921 when Elder B.O. Engen came to pastor the church. Next, in 1925, Elder M.E. Anderson came to shepherd the flock, and in 1926, Elder E. L. Sheldon arrived. The original church structure (which is now the People's Church) on the southeast corner of 9th and America was purchased in June 1920 with a membership at that time of 50. In 1941, a fire destroyed part of the building but God provided when the Bethel Lutheran Church and the Salvation Army graciously allowed the Seventh-day Adventist members to use their places of worship until their church was repaired in April 1942. At that time, the Review and Herald reported that the Bemidji church was dedicated debt-free on April 19, 1942.
Through the years, God blessed and the Bemidji church continued to flourish, eventually outgrowing the quarters at 9th and America. After the death of his wife Petrina Ruskjer-Larson in 1971, George Larson, a charter member, donated land for a future church to be located at 4400 Eckles Road NW in Bemidji. In April 1974, the church on 9th and America was sold and the church members commenced meeting at the church school for services until a new church was finished on the land donated by Mr. Larson. The members took an active role in building a new sanctuary with their monetary donations, physical work, and prayers. Some who performed actual construction work were: Don Cooper, Lyle Jewell, brothers Eldon and Jerry Johnson, Don Larsen and son Dick Larsen, David Larson, Dr. Duane and wife Theresa Wohlfeil, and several others. It is remembered that Lyle Jewell fell and broke his arm while the roof was being put in place. In April of 1976 the new structure was completed enough to start holding weekly services there. On August 15, 1981, the new church, with a seating capacity of 250, was dedicated, Elder Byron Lighthall being the pastor at that time.
As the Bemidji Seventh-day Adventist Church rapidly grew from it's humble beginnings, Christian education became an important priority for the members. In 1920, a church school was started with Petrina Ruskjer (Larson) as the teacher of 10 students. The school met in the teacher’s home on Delton and 17th Street. This school continued to operate until 1936 when it was closed. In 1950 a school was again opened, this time in the church basement at 9th and America with 17 students and Ramona Roberts-Larsen as teacher. The church school continued there until 1956. On April 23, 1955, the church voted to build a school on Delton Avenue and the new school was ready by September 1956. An addition was later made to the school to accommodate the expanding number of pupils – the Review and Herald reported a ground-breaking for the addition on May 5, 1971 for a $22,000 addition of a 38 x 60 foot addition. For a number of years a 9 grade (1-9), 3 teacher school was maintained with the Northome church lending additional support and students. The school operated until 2002 when it was closed and eventually sold (the structure is no longer standing).
The Bemidji Seventh-day Adventist Church has a long-standing history of serving the community around them. The Community Services ministry (called “Dorcas” in the early years) began serving the public from the church on 9th and America where there was a little building on the east end of the church lot which was used for Community Services activities. The little building, which was dedicated in 1959, had just two rooms and was small but it was a beginning. The Review and Herald reported of the 1959 dedication: “November 15, the newly completed welfare center building on the Bemidji, Minnesota, church grounds, was dedicated. Representatives from the General, union, and local conferences were present. The former pastor, H. M. Dukes, and the present pastor, Philip Young, both deserve much credit for the completion of this center.” R&H, Jan. 21, 1960. The Dorcas made quilts and other items to be given away and the surrounding community brought clothing. Arlene Larson-Frishman recalls that, to get the Dorcas building started, her aunt, Petrina (Ruskjer-Larson), made her Uncle George (Larson) go around and ask people if they had clothing to donate and he really didn't like doing that! But after a while, abundant donations started coming in without Uncle George’s solicitation efforts!
After the church at 9th and America was sold, the Community Services Center moved to it’s present location at 810 Fifteenth Street. This land was donated by Dora Olson-Larson (wife of David Larson, Sr.), when Dora's sister, Alice Olson, passed away. The lot next to it was purchased when Jennie Burgeson-Klinger passed away (sister of the well-known MN SDA pastor, Elder Vernon Burgeson). Both Alice and Jennie were faithful church members of the Bemidji SDA Church. Since that time, the Community Services Center ministry has grown tremendously, currently serving more than 100 people a week and sending many semi-truck loads of extra clothing to third world countries. Following are some Review and Herald excerpts extolling the efforts of the Bemidji Community Services group through the years:
Other ministries carried on by the Bemidji Seventh-day Adventist church include an active Pathfinder club, the Otters, where club members enjoy club meetings, camping, and service adventures designed to develop Christ-like citizens of the youth involved. The church also hosts a fair booth at the Beltrami County Fair – a ministry that the church has continually supported since the first fair booth in 1959. In addition, the church is known for it's superb potlucks and warm Sabbath morning greetings to fellow members and visitors!
Through the years, the Bemidji Seventh-day Adventist Church has given a foundation to a number of members and their children and grandchildren who have reached out beyond the circle of their little church in the north woods. Martinus, Soren, and Jens Ruskjer all obtained SDA ministerial licenses with Jens and Soren eventually ministering outside the Minnesota conference. Arlene Larson-Frishman remembers Soren coming back to Bemidji to speak and she also recalls that Jens was a missionary to South America. Willie Wash, a member of the Bemidji SDA Church, met Soren in Tennessee where Soren told him about chopping a hole in the ice to baptize in the lake while in Bemidji. At first Willie didn't believe it but, talking with Dick Sletwick later, Dick said it was true as his mother was one of the ones baptized in that fashion at Bemidji!
As another point of interest, the primary contributor of this Bemidji church history, Arlene Larson-Frishman, recalls that her father, David Larson, Sr., went to church school in Denmark with Christian Andersen who relocated to the Hutchinson, MN, area. Three of Christian Andersen’s children – Harriet, Kenneth, and Alvin – attended Maplewood Academy (MWA) with Arlene and her brother David Larson, Jr. Later Arlene’s children attended school at MWA with Harriet Andersen-Anderson’s children and, more recently, their grandchildren attended MWA together. So four generations of Larsons and Andersens have gone to SDA schools together with the first generations starting in Denmark! Additionally, Clinton Anderson, son of Harriet, was a teacher for 18 years in the Bemidji Church School and presently Arlene’s granddaughter, Laura Cummings, and Harriet’s daughter, Kim Anderson-Wooster, both work at MWA!
Other former Bemidji members that currently work at Maplewood Academy include Peggy Johnson (Mrs. Eldon) who is the current Food Services Director and Carol Jenson-Jourdan (Mrs. Cameron) who is the Girl’s Dean. No doubt there are many other former members who also have reached out to serve in various areas of this nation and the world at large, sharing God’s love with all those about them.
And so it is, that for over 90 years now, the church that started with the humble beginnings sparked by a few Danish immigrants to the north woods of Minnesota has touched the lives of many along the way, bringing the love of Jesus and hope of heaven to so many who have, in turn, shared the love of Jesus with still others!