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In southern Minnesota: ‘An old-time mission festival out in the woods’

A visit to an open-air church in the woods near Janesville.

A sign marks the mission festival site at Marquardt’s Grove where cattle gates to the pasture are opened to allow entry. That’s the dry bed of Bull Run Creek on the left.
Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

AT 8 A.M. SUNDAY, Harold Krienke swung his truck into Marquardt’s Grove some 10 miles south of Janesville to help set up for the annual mission festival in the woods near his country church, Immanuel Lutheran.

It was then he spotted the large black cat with the long tail edging dried up Bull Run Creek some 100 feet from the site where worshipers would gather 2 ½ hours later. “It wasn’t a house cat,” Krienke laughs. The cat—perhaps a panther, some speculate—didn’t scare him; it had been seen previously in the area.

Krienke’s animal encounter certainly wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last, at this mission festival held for the past 75 years in a five-acre wooded section of a 70-acre pasture where cattle still graze days before the event. Last year several head of cattle busted through an electric fence and charged across the creek toward the worship site. Another time horses caused a bit of trouble. No harm done, though, as the wayward animals were chased away.

Len Marquardt, who owns the woodlot and pasture, previously owned by his father, Alfred, and Alfred’s father, Gustav, before him, takes it all in stride. A few wandering animals won’t stop him from continuing the tradition of three generations of his family hosting the long-time festival of Freedom Church, as it is commonly known (referencing its location in Freedom Township), and the past two years in conjunction with Trinity Lutheran Church, Wilton Township, also known as the Wilton Church.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
An overview of the worship site with the Freedom Band seated on the stage and the audience seated on plank benches and lawn chairs on the hillside. Freedom and Trinity Pastor Glenn Korb is standing at the makeshift altar.

Len’s heart and soul are committed to what he defines as “an old-time mission festival out in the woods.”

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That definition seems apt for this event which, many Freedom members estimate, has been ongoing for a century. In the early days, area farmers took turns hosting the annual summer mission festival. The outdoor worship service has always been held around the same time of year, initially chosen, Len says, because the wheat harvest would have just been completed and farmers would have had more money to donate to the church.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Offerings are collected in ice cream buckets at the mission festival.

Money, though, has never been the focus of the festival although a collection is taken. Rather, the purpose is to “help people to focus on missions,” says Len, who several years ago accompanied his daughter, Julie, and others on a mission trip to Nicaragua. It changed him and he now takes personally the words “Here am I, send me” from the hymn “Hark! the Voice of Jesus Crying.” Julie, now a third-year student at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska, followed up with a mission trip to Hong Kong and is now considering a career as a missionary.

“I think we need to be a church in mission,” Len says as he explains the purpose of the mission fest on his family’s property. The natural setting of farm fields, open pasture and woods, with a cool breeze stirring oak leaves and raising goosebumps on Sunday morning, connected worshipers to the message delivered by the Rev. Dr. Robert Holst, retired president of Concordia University, St. Paul, and a former missionary to Papua, New Guinea.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
The Rev. Dr. Robert Holst delivered a message on missions and afterward answered questions about his missionary service in New Guinea. Len Marquardt says the congregation has never had trouble finding a guest pastor as they savor participating in an “old-time mission festival out in the woods.”

As Rev. Holst spoke of his experiences in his sermon, “Global Missions: International Love,” worshipers, sitting among the trees, could easily imagine the primitive ways of the New Guinea people, their belief in spirits, their sacrifice of pigs, their mistrust and misunderstandings and lack of knowledge about God and the challenges the pastor faced in telling them about Christ.

Foreign missions seemed as close as a thought away for attendees like Jeanette Schoenfeld of Wilton Church who enjoys the mission fest because, she says, “It’s like they do in Africa,” worshiping outdoors.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Baby Jaci sits with her dad, Mike, and brother, Bales, during the worship service.

Len Marquardt and others, including his sister, Sally Hodge, appreciate, too, the traditions they are passing from family to family through generations of mission festivals. As Sally samples a vinegary, potato-green bean dish prepared for the mission fest potluck, she glances back to kids racing up the wooded hillside. “I remember tromping up the hills, tromping up the trails, building wood forts…talk about history and family and pleasure in knowing each other…” Sally says as she glances across the table at friend and fellow parishioner Davin Quiram.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
All ages, and several generations of families, attended the mission fest on Sunday.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Sally Hodge sings in the choir and usually plays in the band. But this year she didn’t make the practices so was unable to join the Freedom Band. She lives just up the hill from Marquardt’s Grove and grew up on the other side of “just up the hill.”

Davin, like Sally a life-long member of Freedom, concurs as the two reminisce and remember the rare treat of soda pop from the mission fest pop and candy stand, which Davin will later man. The friends don’t recall specific mission speakers or messages from their childhood days, only those racing through the woods and gulping pop memories.

Davin, though, is quick to rattle off the areas of ministry covered by mission speakers in the past 10 years: American Indians, Hispanic, college, Japanese and such.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
An elderly man turns to a hymn in the old pocket-size songbook that’s been used for decades.

While guest speakers change from year to year, the music remains constant with worshipers singing hymns from the pocket-size Mission Hymns Suitable for Mission Festivals and Similar Gatherings (out of print for 80 years).

Likewise, the Freedom Band, the church band comprised of Freedom members and others from the area and in existence for an estimated 80 years, uses the same familiar music books such as The Church Band Book—Choral Melodies of the Lutheran church for Military Band by A. Grimm, published in 1919 by Antigo Publishing Co., and a handwritten book of music transposed from a hymnal for the band.

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Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
The Freedom Band and some of its handwritten music.

The Freedom Band has always played at the mission fest and other area mission events in years gone by. At any time, 5 – 7 members of Sally’s family, the Marquardts, may be playing in the band—all on the trumpet but for one on the sax.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Gemma Lin returned to the mission fest, one year after her baptism there in 2011.

Part of mission fest also includes the occasional outdoor baptism. Sally’s father, Alfred, born in 1911, was baptized at the Freedom Mission Festival. Last year, a century later, two-month-old Gemma Lin of Mankato was baptized in Marquardt’s Grove and her great uncle was baptized the night before at Freedom Church. Aleta Lin, Gemma’s mom, treasures her daughter’s unique baptism and the story of that baptism which will always be a part of family history. She hopes Gemma will, through the years, continue to attend mission fest, a life-long tradition for Aleta, a life-long member of Freedom Church.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
A bible lies on the floor of the stage where the band played and the preachers preached.

For those outside of Freedom, memories of past mission fests also come quickly. Such festivals were once a staple among rural congregations as a time to worship God in the outdoors, to socialize afterward at a potluck dinner and even meet future spouses.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Worshipers line up for a potluck dinner after the worship service.

Guest pastor Holst opened his message by reminiscing about the mission fests of his youth, recalling the washtubs full of soda pop—root beer, 7-UP and Orange Crush—set out by the youth group. He also remembered the ball games between fathers and children.

On Sunday there were no ball games or kids racing for a rare treat of pop. But plenty of kids—from babies to teens—settled onto temporary wood plank benches and lawn chairs or upon blankets or in car seats on the same ground in Marquardt’s Grove that has, for generations, served as an outdoor house of worship on one Sunday in August.

Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling
The vintage mini songbook lying on planks and the mission site in the background.