At the turn of the 20th century, there were 3000 Scandinavian families living in the north Portland. Already in existence were German, Finnish, and Danish Lutheran churches, but nothing for the Norwegians. Those wanting to attend Norwegian services has to cross the Willamette River on the Albina Ferry to attend Bethlehem Lutheran Church on NW 14th Avenue and Davis Street. So, in 1910 the Norwegian Free Lutheran Church decided to build a church in the north Portland area. The church officials called Reverend B. A. Borrevik from Silverton, Oregon to organize a new congregation.
Two Norwegian carpenters and lay leaders, John Oyen and Ole Stokke, assisted with organization and the congregation was incorporated in 1911. Before the dust settled at the current location of 5658 N. Denver Ave, the congregation met in Lundys’ Hall at NE 15th and Alberta Ave and then at Steuben Hall at N. Ivy and Williams Ave (which is now the Wonder Bread bargain store). Steuben Hall was also a beer hall on Saturday nights, so of course the beer barrels had to be moved prior to Sunday morning service to correct the “various signs of riotous living”.
It was decided by the congregation to build their own chapel in 1914, using the carpentry skills of many of the members. After getting donations from the nationwide church, a small church was built at the corner of NE Rodney Ave and Wygant Street. Contributions of one dollar were sent to support the mission of building this church. It was dubbed the “Dollar Church” by people who teased about the way the church was financed. After a decade, the church became too small and was sold to Hope Lutheran Church of the Deaf. It was at this point that Bethel moved to its current location on N. Denver Ave. The congregation continued meeting in community halls til the initial structure was completed in 1928.
All services were in Norwegian until 1920, when the Sunday School switched to English. They offered the language change to the Sunday services in 1928, yet still offered ‘Norse’ alternative services. As the congregation grew, it was decided to add an annex building for Sunday School and other activities.
Currently, Bethel continues to serve the neighborhood through the Youth Drop In Center, Sunday morning breakfast for members and homeless in the area, Saturday morning hygiene services, and of course the Bethel Players Dinner Theater which has received local and national attention. Structurally over the past several years we have added a handicap elevator access, handicapped restroom accessibility, and the face of the sanctuary changed with arrival and installation of the pipe organ back in 1984. An additional bathroom to the second floor, moving the pastors’ office to the east end of the building… some things are familiar but changes are all around.