In the Hearts of Immigrants
It was during the migration of the 1860s and later migrations that living faith known as Laestadianism came to North America. It was a frontier land, new and untamed, when they first arrived.
From these roots, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the sermon of repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name and blood was heard in the darkness of the “big woods,” as the area surrounding Cokato was called. Our Heavenly Father, through His servants, began sowing the seed of living faith in this new land, America.
The Journey Was Difficult
Leaving their European homes, believing that they might never see their loved ones again in this life, they began their arduous journey. The transatlantic voyage had its ordeals, taking up to six weeks. Conditions were often terrible; lack of wholesome food and sufficient water contributed to high rates of disease and death at sea.
The journey continued to this area that was to be eventually known as Cokato. The name comes from an Indian word meaning “at the middle” or “in the midst of.” Those first settlers had to walk the final leg of the journey through a thick hardwood forest, as there were no roads. Upon their arrival the work began in earnest—first to build a log home and sauna, and then to begin to clear the forest to get to the rich fertile soil. It wasn’t until 1869 when the railroad reached it that the village of Cokato was established. These were the surroundings in which the first believers gathered to begin their new life.
From Log Cabin to a Large, Modern Church Building
The first recorded home services took place in 1868 at Adam Ongamo’s rustic cabin. One can only imagine the joy and anticipation of this event in the midst of the big forest in the new land. With memories of services at home still fresh in their thoughts, and lonesome as they remembered the many loved ones they had left behind, they looked forward with faith and trust in God. God’s children felt joy when they gathered to hear God’s encouraging and uplifting Word, and to visit of the way and journey. It was so then, and it is so today. It became a custom to gather together on Sundays for home services. In those early formative years there were soon twelve families that gathered together.
In 1872, the believers established the Cokato Finnish Congregation, and in 1876 the construction of the church was completed. In 1879, the Cokato church was the first Laestadian congregation to adopt the name Apostolic Lutheran Church. During 1886 the church was enlarged to accommodate all the believers. Nearby Laestadian churches were founded near French Lake (1887) and in Kingston (1889). Cokato congregation’s present church was dedicated in 2011. This year, 2017, the Cokato congregation celebrates its 145-year anniversary.
Servants of the Word—A Brief Profile
Early servants of the Word include Isak Barber, the first pastor, followed by Jacob and Kaleb Wuollet, Antti Vittikko-Huhta, Jacob Rovainen, and Isak Alamaa.
In 1906, William Lahtinen became the pastor of the church. He and his wife Anne perished aboard the Titanic when it sunk in 1912.
In the 1920s, Niilo Saastamoinen became the pastor of the church. He began an unprecedented bilingual confirmation school in Cokato. Seven of 53 students were taught in English instead of Finnish. Two thousand people attended the confirmation examination.
In the later 1920s, John Nelson became pastor. He was born in Norway but was capable of teaching and preaching in English. The youth especially needed to hear the living gospel in a language they could understand. During special services in the area, around a hundred youth received the grace of repentance.
Reverend North served the Cokato congregation from 1934 until 1946, when he was called to his heavenly home. Starting in 1934, he instituted the regular use of English in the service schedule.
Peter Nordstrom was called to serve as pastor in 1946. He faithfully served until his unexpected death in 1981 at 68 years old. During his time of service, a great spiritual storm came and caused much damage.
Paul Nevala faithfully served as Cokato’s pastor from 1981 until his retirement in 1993. Rod Nikula who now serves as a minister in the Rockford congregation was called to be a servant of God while part of the Cokato congregation. Over the years others have served for brief periods.
Spiritual storms came and went in the twentieth century, leaving the often doubting and bewildered children of God, who were preserved by God’s grace, thankful for their own faith and deeply saddened by those who had been deceived.
Cokato’s Services Today and Servants of the Word
A newspaper article from 1889 listed the membership of the Laestadian members in the general area at five hundred. Over the decades the membership has varied. Today on a given Sunday morning, around 800 people gather to hear God’s Word. The congregation is now served by George Koivukangas, full-time pastor; Randy Haapala, assistant pastor; and ministers Curt Simonson and Tommi Kinnunen. God has blessed us here in Cokato, and we can say, “O Emmanuel, how great is your grace.”
A heartfelt welcome to the 2017 LLC Summer Services in Howard Lake, Minn. It is good to be in the midst of God’s kingdom. May this candle of faith continue to give light to the lost and seeking ones.
March 2017 Voice of Zion