In the 1850’s the population of Sweden was approximately 3.5 Million people. Sweden , as many European countries was suffering economic hardships and the promise of a better life in the United States inspired many to leave their native land. With courage and conviction and a trust in God’s abiding love they left family and friends and became part of a massive migration to the United States . From 1850 until the turn of the century 1.0 Million “Swedes” had moved to the United States . Friends followed friends, families followed families and the start of an important Scandinavian impact on America had begun.
The majority of these new immigrants went west to the promise of land and farms in Minnesota and a smaller number stayed east to work on the canals, rivers, railroads and the quarries and rose garden in Portland and Cromwell.
During this time the church offered many opportunities for these new Americans. It was a place to worship the God they loved and it was also a place to retain part of the “old country”, which was still close to their hearts. They worshipped in their native language and it was in that language that their children learned about God and it was in that language they were confirmed. (This continued at Bethany until 1928 when the Sunday School adopted English as its official language.)
The Swedish immigrants in Cromwell began meeting in homes around 1885 and several attempts were made to officially form a congregation. After trying for so long, the church was finally incorporated on January 8th, 1908 . Two years later, the Methodist church building on Main Street was purchased in December of 1910 and remained the church’s home until its present building was built in 1965.
In 1920, a decision was made to hold one service a month in English and in 1928 the Sunday school offered its programs in English as well.
From 1908 to 1953, the congregation shared a pastor with Zion Lutheran Church of Portland. During that time it maintained its own Sunday School program but the Pastor resided in Portland, confirmation classes were held there and the Pastor would come to Cromwell to officiate at all functions (funeral, weddings, etc.) and preach at an early service at Bethany. Pastoral expenses were shared by both congregations.
Bethany’s first full time pastor (Rev. C. W. Hendrickson) was installed in 1953. In that same year three acres of land was purchased on Court Street with the congregation looking forward to build. In 1956 the congregation called Rev. Ralph Sandberg to be its pastor. Pastor Sandberg served until 1962. During his tenure the church celebrated its 50th anniversary (1958) and made plans to relocate as the “old church” which was badly in need of repair. The church was a lovely little building which proudly faced Main Street but sat on a piece of property where parking was virtually non-existent.
The added expense of a full time pastor did, however, put a significant burden on the congregation and after several years, the congregation had to decide if it was going to continue on its own or join with another Lutheran congregation. Up to this time it had been receiving support from Synod and the time was running out on how long mission aid could continue. The resignation of the Pastor put an additional burden on the congregation to make a decision.
A young seminarian, Burton D. Strand, was serving his intern year at Christ Lutheran in Middletown and provided pulpit supply on Sundays. He and the church leaders both had a vision of what Bethany could become.
After ordination, Pastor Strand was called and he and his wife Beverly and their then three children moved into the parsonage on Nordland Avenue and began their ministry here.
A decision was made to move ahead with construction of a new church, which was a momentous decision on the part of the few families who were members. The congregation was small but their dreams were big and their faith in God and His purpose for them was real. They took on the task of building with vigor and enthusiasm, doing much of the physical works themselves under the guidance of builder Sam Tychen and his nephew Sven. Financially the commitment was overwhelming and many pledged their homes as collateral for the loans needed for construction. The new church was built and dedicated with a sanctuary, fellowship hall, classrooms and offices. Shortly thereafter a new parsonage was built and dedicated next door.
A pre-school was established and began serving the needs of Cromwell’s growing number of young families.
The next years were one of great challenge and under the dedicated leadership of Pastor Hoog and his wife Ruth the congregation continued to grow and flourish. Subsequently, Pastor Hoog left to assume duties as Chaplain of the Whiting Forensic Institute and was followed by Rev. Roger Davidson, who with his wife Phyllis, served faithfully for several years.
After the death of Pastor Davidson, several interim Pastors served Bethany-most notably Rev. Stanley Sandberg, retired pastor of Emanuel Lutheran in Hartford . He and his wife Norma were especially supportive of the church in a time of great need.
Pastor Lawrence Wogman joined the congregation in the late ’80’s and under the dedicated service of Pastor Wogman and his wife Nancy the congregation continued to grow.
By the mid-90’s it became obvious that a new era was developing for Cromwell and for the church. The church facilities needed refurbishing and what was once considered an abundance of space was now inadequate for the growing needs of the Sunday School, Preschool, music programs and worship. A second and third service had been added to accommodate the congregation. In 1998, an additional parcel of land was purchased (1 ½ acres) fund raising began and on May 23, 2004 an expanded facility was dedicated with new offices, a chapel, public room, additional classroom space and improved parking. Again, much physical work was done by the congregation and a combination of several generous estate gifts, a matching gift program (sponsored by a member) and the commitment of members made the new facilities possible.
In 2008 the congregation will be 100 years old. The faith and commitment of its early founders has endured a century of events both global and personal. The congregation has sent its young people to serve our country in the military in time of war, (several are currently serving in that capacity), it has survived the Depression, the assassination of a President and the tragedy of 9/11. It has survived the tragic death of a Pastor and the loss of a pastor’s child. Its outreach has been global, sponsoring a refugee family, supporting church programs in South Africa and Namibia , supporting hurricane victims and providing ministry to our neighbors at home as well.
Over these 100 years, the congregation has moved forward in faith to witness to the “Good News”. Today our ministry has changed; we are no longer a congregation of Swedish background; we are a cosmopolitan congregation representing all nationalities and backgrounds. We welcome all, and open our facilities to all who have a need. We praise God with our musical witness, which spans traditional to contemporary. We rejoice in the children who attend our Sunday School, Preschool and Vacation Bible School . We look forward to ever expanding ministries.
Our congregation reflects the mobile trend of our society with loyal members who stay with us not for a life time but for the time their work assignments last in our area, these folks are a very important part of our church life – we welcome them when they come, provide a family and church home for them and rejoice in the gift of their presence among us even as they move on.
Over these hundred years we have faced many challenges, but our forbearers left us a great legacy of faith and perseverance — these too are gifts of the Spirit — we move forward with hope and expectation that the next 100 years will be even better.