The history of the Big Canoe Lutheran Church dates back to 1851 when the first non-Indians began settlement in the Decorah area. The land was almost entirely forest. The first Norwegian settlers were from Voss, Hallingdal and Numedal, in west central Norway. At one time, Highland Township, just north of the Big Canoe Church was 100 percent Norwegian. One reason for that was the fact that the Norwegian settlers had been farmers in Norway that there was land available for farming in Iowa. In 1850, Halsten Stoen and his sons homesteaded 640 acres in Winneshiek County, Iowa and were willing to provide work and board for many who came from Norway.
In 1852 Pastor N. O. Brandt from Rock River, Wisconsin, visited the early settlers at the Peder Langland home. In 1853, the Big Canoe congregation was formally organized at the Torgeir Luros home. There were 35 charter members, and Erik Ellefson Sleen, who had come from Norway by way of Jefferson Prairie, Illinois, was elected chairman. Later that year, Pastor Ulrik V. Koren came and served this whole area of northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota. Today it takes nearly 40 Pastors to serve the Lutheran churches that Pastor Koren served.
After meeting in various homes, including Erik Sleen's large log cabin (later the Oscar Tilleros home), and at the Sattre log school house, the congregation decided to build a church of local quarry stone. The members themselves furnished the labor. The church was completed and dedicated in 1867.
Since the congregation had grown in size, a larger building was needed. So, in 1902, the present brick church was built directly across the road, using the stone from the old church as the foundation for the new church. Massive oak woodwork, large stained glass windows, and a beautiful and unique altar with its statues of Christ and the Evangelists Mark and Luke set the tone for worship.
In the fall of 1991, it was decided to build on a new entry with a new front door and an elevator going to both the basement and the main part of the church. In the process, the remains of the old kerosene chandeliers were found stored in the bell tower. Since lighting was needed in the new entry, and more lighting in the main church, it was decided to have the old chandeliers restored and re-installed in the church. One of the original kerosene lamps was located, and new lamps were purchased which matched the old ones. The new ones were electrified. It was a happy day, especially for the older members, when the "new" restored chandeliers were returned to their place in the church to once more give light to the glory of God, and in memory of the old pioneer Norwegians who had established Big Canoe Church so long ago.
Visitors always ask about the church's unusual name. "Big Canoe" is not a Biblical name, or is it even a Norwegian name. Big Canoe was a Winnebago Indian chief. In 1730, his grandmother married a French Army officer named Sabrevoir De Carrie. He resigned from the army, joined the tribe, and worked as a fur trader. They had two sons and a daughter, and from the sons came a whole line of chiefs. They were all named De Carrier, which was later changed to Dekaury, and still later, to Decorah. One of those sons became the father of both Big Canoe and Waukon Decorah, And, so we have a church named Big Canoe and two near-by towns named Waukon, and Decorah.
When the church was named, it was actually named after the whole area where it is located, because the area was named after the Indian chief, Big Canoe. In any event the name "Big Canoe" stands as a tribute to those people who enjoyed this land even before the Norwegian immigrants arrived.
The first Parsonage was built on 40 acres of land when Pastor H.A. Stub came from Norway in 1865. This house burned to the ground about two years later, and was immediately rebuilt. A third parsonage was built in 1907, and given the name "Borgen," which is understood to mean "Castle on the Hill." The name and date are both inscribed on the front of the house. There are several farm buildings on the Parsonage grounds, since pastors in earlier times kept a few cows and chickens to supplement their livelihood. And, of course, they needed a place for their horse. Today, the few remaining farm buildings are used for storage.
Sixteen pastors have served Big Canoe full-time in its nearly 150 year history. Ten have been resident pastors. The sixeen pastors are listed below.
N. O. Brandt (1852-1854)
U. V. Koren (1854-1857)
F. C. Clausen (1857-1861)
N. E. Jensen (1962-1864)
F. A. Schmidt (1864-1865)
H. A. Stub (1865-1882 & 1883-1892)
J. G. Nelson (1881-1883)
Knut Seehuus (1892-1916)
Justin A. Peterson (1916-1917)
T. O. Tolo (1917-1939)
Wm. T. Hexom (1939-1965)
Emil Martinson (1965-1975)
Steve W. Jensen (1975-1988)
Philip Larson (1989-1990)
David H. Andreae (1991-2013)
Kurt Bockoven (2015 - present)
Big Canoe celebrated its Sesquicentennial with a two day celebration September 27 & 28, 2003. Saturday featured a Confirmation Reunion and indoor picnic supper. Sunday included a Festival Worship, catered noon meal, and a concert by the Luren Singing Society, an area men's chorus that was established by four homesick Norwegians 135 years ago.
Big Canoe is committed to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with our community, nation, and world.
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