Swedish Churches in Omaha: Sites and Survivals

Second Swedish Baptist Church

We begin with this church because it was found on the first day of looking for sites and survivals of the earliest Swedish churches in Omaha and it is so typical of this genre: a small rectangular frame missionhouse of wood. Because it was such a pure example so dramatically preserved and tucked away in its little corner, it also becomes a contender for the inevitable question: which one of the sites and particularly which survivor holds title to being the oldest remaining now in 2007? This question will form the outline for this photo-historical essay.

Second Swedish Baptist in 1919

Our debt to Mr. Lowen Kruse is great, for it is in his book "Omaha: the Prairie Blossoms", that we find a list of all the churches in Omaha that responded to his questions, i.e., when were they organized? when built? when moved, merged or closed? For Second Swedish Baptist that date of construction was 1906. In another source it is reported that the earliest structure dates from 1889, but this mission chapel became independant in 1896 and was remodeled at that time and again in 1900. It's initial cost was $800. Yes, times have changed!

Already the quest for oldest among the survivors is growing in complexity, for certainly preference must be given to a church that contains its original denominational legacy. In other words it was not sold or transferred to some other church body, an event that was very common in a city the size of Omaha as we shall see. One could scarcely expect that a group of Swedish-speaking immigrants would be found here in the 4500 block of South 22nd street. But as you look at the picture below perhaps you will experience the moving impression we received of a shy and reticent but friendly group of members who were themselves recent immigrants to our country and city, proud to have a clearly well-maintained if modest house of worship of their own. Times really may not have changed that much.

Bible School at Second Baptist

South Omaha was the first great expansion of the metropolitan area, and most of the established churches near downtown formed or helped form new "daughter" churches in this area. Author Kruse, published in 2002, cites the Swedish Salem Lutheran church on Vinton as the oldest existing Omaha church serving its original congregation. On our visit the site had become a parking lot, so that title had been lost.

Swedish Lutheran Salem Church as it was

Here we insert an update. Though the visit mentioned above failed to find Salem, incredibly we had been within a block of the church which we did find a year later! Our location notes were faulty on that day, as were our powers of observation. Now we can set the record straight. Built in 1891, Salem is still standing tall and appears to be in good shape though now it is divided into apartments. As the picture shows it preserves very much its ecclesiastical character. According to Sandahl it was originally built on the adjacent lot to the south, but was moved to the present location and veneered with brick in 1907.

Salem today; another survivor!

Sandahl records the adversities which Elving and his congregation faced in South Omaha, from friend and foe alike. The pastor was constrained to dwell in an apartment appended to the rear of the church building. Though today's version may not equate with his quarters, this picture gives at least a flavor of that setting.

Apartment at Salem's rear, Rev. Elving's dwelling

But if Swedish Lutheran daughter Salem appeared to be gone, we found her sibling Bethel very much alive and well! It has been our Smorgåsbord destination for several years.

Augustana's Bethel Church at 45th and Poppleton

Our day of visit coincided with a city-wide program of open houses in churches, what a great idea! The welcome mats were out and the coffee was on. At the end we had to defer from more cookies! We were the first guests to arrive at Bethel and I must confess that my first words to our greeters after our introductions was "We are Swedes." Soon we were signing up for their planned smorgåsbord and after a proud tour of the facility were ushered into Pastor Houfek's study for a look at their historical documents. He was connected to the Malmo community in Saunders County! Why were we not surprised?

Bethel altar: the first building was in 1916 but this one dates from the 30's

In 1922 Lutheran work in the north part of Omaha took a big step forward in the founding of Trinity Church at 30th St. and Redick Ave. Prior to that time a number of sites and names had been tried without success. Here at last persistance paid off and an abiding presence established.

Trinity Lutheran Augustana then, and today (below)

We have now seen three "daughter" churches, but what of their "mothers?" First Swedish Baptist and the Immanuel Lutheran churches have long passed from the scene. Both were located on the north side of downtown Omaha now covered by the interstate highway, industrial buildings and, increasingly, Creighton University. But "not so fast", there are some survivors in this bleak district and Kruse's record pinpoints just where they were...in an amazing concentration of churches within a few blocks.

Here stood the Immanuel mother church

Old Immanuel at 17th and Cass

But wait! the old German Presbyterian church survived! Built in 1887 at 18th and Cuming Kruse has several congregations claiming locations at this corner, including a Seventh Day Adventist and a Scandinavian Seventh Day Adventist. Since these groups frequently shared buildings which worshipped on Sundays, it is not impossible that this very building did include Swedes at one time.

Possibly Swedish, certainly a survivor!