Pilgrim Congregational Church has had a long and colorful history in Duluth. Members of its congregation were among the first settlers of a village that in January 1869 was home to only 14 families. Despite significant growth during 1869 and 1870, Duluth in 1871 consisted of scattered wood frame buildings on a desolate, largely treeless and rocky hillside. During 1869-1870, early Pilgrim members were central figures in key developments in the nascent city, including construction of Duluth’s first grain elevator (Elevator A) and digging the Duluth Ship Canal.
On November 28, 1870, Congregational friends, meeting at 110 West Superior Street in rooms used by supporters of the Y.M.C.A. (which would not begin its corporate existence in Duluth until 1882), unanimously voted to organize a Congregational church and to call Charles Cotton Salter (B.A. Yale, 1852; M.A. Andover Theological Seminary, 1855) as its first minister. Salter taught at the Yale Divinity School (1856-1857), served in the early phases of the Civil War and was (1862-1867) the “…first settled minister…” of Plymouth Congregational Church of Minneapolis. Salter’s “…nature was large, and sunny, and kindly, with sympathy for all sides of human experience. Birth and training had given him a particularly fine and gracious social bearing. He was equally at ease with rich or poor, young or old. His was the merriest laugh, and his the tenderest sympathy…(M. T. Hale, Plymouth Record, vol. X, no. 1, January 1898, p. 3).
On January 18, 1871, Charles Salter joined fifteen other men and women in formally establishing Pilgrim Church. The first church building was constructed on two lots on at the northeast corner of 2nd Street and 1st First Avenue East. This building was dedicated (July 16, 1871) with the congregation free of all debt. The etching below was done in 1921 for Pilgrim’s Fiftieth Anniversary by Duluth’s iconic painter David Ericson. Ericson would have been very familiar with this building, his family attended Pilgrim and he joined the church in 1886.
Duluth’s fortunes changed dramatically after the Panic of 1873 when Jay Cooke of Philadelphia, who had invested heavily in Duluth and who started (February 15, 1870) construction of the Northern Pacific Railway near Duluth, was forced into bankruptcy. Duluth and Pilgrim Church struggled as the population of the city collapsed.
By the late 1870’s the population of Duluth and membership in Pilgrim Church were beginning to recover. Pilgrim was able to call its second settled minister, Edward McArthur Noyes (B.A. Yale, 1879 (Phi Beta Kappa); M.A. Yale, 1882) in 1883. Noyes was ordained in Duluth at Pilgrim Church on September 27, 1883. He oversaw a decade of stabilization and growth. Pilgrim’s second building (designed by William H. Willcox and Clarence H. Johnston, Sr. (who would later design Glensheen for Chester Congdon and many significant buildings in the Twin Cities)), at the southeast corner of Lake Avenue and Second Street, was constructed, “…with sacrifice and perseverance…”, between June 1887 and February 1889. “[The building]…was begun in June 1887, and the exterior was completed in November of the same year. The very day after the last ornament had been placed on the roof, the church was almost totally destroyed by fire. the blackened and partly crumbled walls alone remaining. The fire caught caught from a stone placed in the audience room [in times past, Pilgrim used the term “audience room” or “auditorium” when referring to what we have taken in recent years to calling the “sanctuary”] to keep the plaster from freezing. Three watchmen were supposed to be in the building and were certainly there half an hour before the fire, but as nearly as the truth can be ascertained, had left their trust a few moments to seek a saloon, for a glass of Sunday whiskey. The sudden cold of the day had frozen the nearest fire-plug, and the delay thus caused gave the fire such headway that it could not be controlled. The loss was some $40,000.00 above the insurance, and this was divided between the church and the contractor. As soon as the weather permitted the walls were thoroughly rebuilt, the tower being taken down clear to the ground, and the remaining walls in some cases as far as the water table…The first services were held in November ’88 and the main audience room was opened Feb 10th, ’89…” (contemporary newspaper account, exact publication and date unknown). Over four decades later (1931) Edward MacArthur Noyes wrote in a letter to Pilgrim Church members “…those of us who struggled to build the first stone Church and then watched it burn, before we had ever worshipped in its audience room, will never forget those days of trial and victory. They were a staunch and loyal group, tried in the fire, who worshipped and worked together in Pilgrim Church, when I knew it best…”. Recurrent typhoid epidemics in Duluth took the lives of Edward Noyes’ wife (Alice, 1891) and his daughter (Mary, 1892). Edward Noyes left Pilgrim in 1894.
Cornelius Howard Patton (B.A. Amherst, 1883; B.D. Yale, 1886; D.D. Amherst, 1899; D.D. Williams, 1921) conducted his ministry at Pilgrim (1895-1898) with a dignity and competence prescient of his later distinguished career (author of multiple books, creator of a major collection of books by and about William Wordsworth, Home Secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Boston, Massachusetts (1904-1927), Trustee of Amherst College (1905-1939)). Cornelius and his wife Pauline brought a welcome energy to Pilgrim Church and Duluth. Pilgrim, with its colorful Music Director and Organist, Arthur G. Drake, was home to a series of community concerts and (after 1900) Matinee Musicale performances. Pilgrim Church began years of support for Emily Susan Hartwell in Fuzhou (China) where Emily Hartwell founded a girl’s school, orphanage, kindergarten and the Christian Women’s Industrial Institute.
Alexander Milne (B.D. Yale, 1889; M.A. Ohio State University, 1898) came to Pilgrim July 1899. Milne, a somewhat introverted and thoughtful man, was in poor health much of his time in Duluth. He was concerned, from his earliest days in Duluth, that Pilgrim’s downtown location was a serious threat to the long-term well-being of the church as its congregation moved to new homes in the East End of the city. In 1907, Pilgrim Church began support of Herbert Irwin and his family. Irwin worked among Armenian people in the eastern Ottoman Empire and, after the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), among Armenian refugees in Greece. Pilgrim Church supported the Irwin family without interruption from 1907 to 1927. Although well-liked, health issues made it increasingly difficult for Alexander Milne to carry out his duties as minister and he retired December 20, 1911.
Charles Nicholas Thorp (Amherst College, 1891; Yale, 1896) came to pilgrim in October 1912 ‘…with a fine enthusiasm and a broad optimism…”, an attitude which was a “…dominant characteristic…” of his seven year ministry. From the beginning of his time at Pilgrim, Thorp promoted the idea that the church should build a new building somewhere around 24th Avenue East, an area he referred to as “…our promised land…”. Two members of the congregation, Julius Barnes and Ward Ames, Jr. purchased the Pilgrim’s Lake Avenue building, tore it down and constructed, at their own expense, a new Boy’s Y.M.C.A. on the site – a building which was said to be the finest Boy’s Y.M.C.A. in the United States. Pilgrim Church hired the popular Duluth architect Frederick German to design a building on the corner of 23d Avenue East and Fourth Street. Members of the congregation contributed generously to acquire land, build and furnish the new building. For two years, from the Fall of 1915 to the fall of 1917, Pilgrim held its Sunday morning services in the auditorium of the Masonic Temple on the southwest corner of Lake Avenue and Second Street. Other church functions during this period were held at the First Unitarian Church on the southeast corner of 18th Avenue East and First Street. The first service of any kind in the partially finished Fourth Street building (September 24, 1917) was the ordination service for Ray Phillips, a young man who had grown up in Pilgrim Church and graduated from Carleton College and the Yale School of Religion. Pilgrim would support Phillips for almost forty years while he worked (more as a social worker and student than as a traditional missionary) among Bantu people in Johannesburg, South Africa. He related well to young black intellectuals. In 1924, Ray Phillips started the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg. The meeting rooms, library, theater, boxing club, social and cultural programs of the Social Centre became a focal point in the lives of many young South Africans who would later have great influence in the country. Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo (both of whom would serve as Secretary General of the African National Congress) were members, as was Nelson Mandela. Ray Phillips earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Yale University in 1937 for his research on the Bantu people. Pilgrim’s new church building on Fourth Street was dedicated December 23, 1917 with the church free of all debt. The dedication sermon was preached by Donald Cowling the 37 year old president (1909-1945) of Carleton College (Carleton was the local college Pilgrim tended to identify with and contribute to during the first half of the twentieth century). Oscar Mitchell, Chair of Pilgrim’s Board of Trustees from 1903 to 1937, was a long-time trustee of Carleton. During this period, Pilgrim Church began more than three decades of support for Cloquet’s Finnish Congregational Church and other Finnish churches in northern Minnesota. Charles Thorp preached his farewell sermon at Pilgrim on October 19,1919.
Noble Strong Elderkin (B.A. Amherst, 1901; B.D. Yale, 1905) was Pilgrim’s minister throughout what was perhaps Pilgrim’s most buoyant decade (1920-1930). Elderkin, a pacifist with sensitivity for social welfare issues, was modest and judicious in his interactions with the congregation – a style which was said to engender increasing “…admiration and love…” for him throughout his tenure. The church blossomed in its new building. Much of the interior was finished during this period, including the installation (between 1918 and 1932) of five paired stained glass windows made by Tiffany Studios. An electropneumatic organ built by J. W. Steere & Son of Springfield, Massachusetts, with pipes located in tall chambers on each side of the chancel, was installed in 1917. The organ was described as a “romantic” four manual organ with 54 stops and 3,400 pipes. The much admired Belgian-American organ virtuoso Charles Courboin played the inaugural concert on this organ December 23, 1917. He would return to Pilgrim to give concerts three more times over the next decade. The Ladies’ Union was reorganized as the Women’s Assembly. The women of the church continued and expanded their work, undertaking and funding a broad range of service and charitable projects. Noble Elderkin was absent from Pilgrim Church for four Sundays in October 1925 while he attended meetings of the Commission on Social Service and other meetings of the National Council of Congregational Churches. “A Statement of Social Ideals” (adopted October 24, 1925) was the product of these meetings. The Statement advocated: “…the building of a social order in which every child has the best opportunity for development…group interests, whether labor or capital, must always be integrated with the welfare of society as a whole…all ownership is a social trust…the unlimited exercise of the right of private ownership is socially unacceptable…the elimination of racial discrimination…[in international relations] the removal of any unjust barrier of trade, color, creed and race and the practice of equal justice for all nations…”.
Pilgrim’s momentum from the 1920’s seemed to carry through the difficult times of the Depression in the 1930’s. Theodore Kampmann Vogler was installed as Pilgrim’s minister December 1931. There was a great deal of activity at the church. Pilgrim’s scout troops, initially established in the 1910’s, were flourishing (Girl Scout Troop No. 1, Boy Scout Troop No. 8, Pilgrim Sea Scout Troop, Pilgrim Cub Scout Troop). Pilgrim began binding weekly Sunday Bulletins by year and selling them for sixty cents a volume. On April 29, 1934, Theodore Vogler, noting that “…Tides of racial and religious prejudice threaten America once more…”, delivered a sermon titled “The Problem of Brotherhood”. On April 17, 1936, the Pilgrim Women’s Assembly sponsored a major fundraising event at the Duluth Armory, Port 0’ Duluth Showboat: “…tea will be served at gay little tables and guests will have an opportunity to witness a fine stage show and a style show put on by sixteen leading firms of the city and to hear lovely vocal and orchestral music…a buffet supper will be served…followed by dancing…”. Theodore Vogler left Pilgrim Church September 1936.
Pilgrim broke new ground when Thomas Craig McQueen became its eighth settled minister in September 1937. McQueen’s background and education were different from that of his predecessors at Pilgrim. He was a graduate of the University of Manitoba and Manitoba Theological College. Prior to his coming to Pilgrim, McQueen had been the minister of rural churches in Warroad, Baudette and Glencoe, Minnesota. At the First Congregational Church of Glencoe (where McQueen served 1933-1937), McQueen’s ministry was associated with substantial growth, including a 42% increase in membership on one day, Easter Sunday 1935, when 117 new members were added to a congregation of 277. McQueen’s “…strong and hopeful spirit…” was well-received Pilgrim which he served through the last part of the Depression and World War II. A physically large man, McQueen at Pilgrim was more than once characterized as “…a big man in a big pulpit…”. McQueen nurtured a close relationship between Pilgrim and local Roman Catholic and Jewish congregations. He worked to establish the Duluth Round Table of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Father Joseph A. Cashen, rector of Duluth’s Holy Rosary Cathedral, delivered the keynote address at Pilgrim’s annual meeting in January 1945. The famous French organist and composer Marcel Dupré (St. Suplice and the Paris Conservatoire) gave a memorable concert at Pilgrim on September 28, 1939. In 1941, Pilgrim, for the first time, printed and distributed its annual report to the congregation. McQueen attracted new members to Pilgrim as he had at the other churches he served. Pilgrim carried, in the Fall of 1937, 1,106 members on its rolls. After McQueen arrived, the membership list was purged of 465 inactive members, leaving Pilgrim with 641 members on December 31, 1937. During the 7 1/2 years of McQueen’s tenure, 526 people joined Pilgrim, and membership stood at 963 when he left in March 1945. Overall membership only increased by two members between McQueen’s departure and December 31, 1945. McQueen was a trustee of Carleton College (assuming the seat long held by Oscar Mitchell). McQueen left Pilgrim at a time of, perhaps, its highest active membership, a growing budget and with the church free of all debt.
Quiet and Dignified, John Milton Phillips assumed duties as Pilgrim’s minister in November 1945. Pilgrim’s vibrant infrastructure continued to support a great deal of activity: multiple groups of the Women’s Assembly met every month; several groups of the Pilgrim’s Men’s Club met regularly; the Cambridge Club, a group for college age students organized by Mary Van Evera in 1946, held regular meetings; Pilgrim’s Scout troops were active; and the church’s religious education programs were thriving. The flamboyant and popular American organist Virgil Fox gave concerts on Pilgrim’s organ in 1948 and 1951 to enthusiastic audiences. However, this was not a period of growth at Pilgrim, the church failed to fully fund its budget several years in a row and church membership declined slightly. A nascent sense of controversy developed in the church, related in part to Pilgrim’s support of various social action programs and discussion of a possible merger between the national Congregational denomination and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. In 1951, a committee representing the Trustees and the Deacons was formed to visit the minister and inform him of their concern about a “…lack of leadership in the Church… Neglect by the minister of some of his pastoral duties…factions…in the Church…[and] The belief that the minister would not be able to bring these factions together…”. John Phillips ended his ministry at Pilgrim December 1951.
William LeRoy Halfaker (B.A. Ohio State University, 1932; B.D. Chicago Theological Seminary, 1936) was 43 when he came to Pilgrim in November 1952. He would serve almost two decades as Pilgrim’s minister during the period of great controversy in Pilgrim’s history – but it was also a time which revealed the underlying strength and optimism of a congregation able to weather the storm and carry on with a fresh commitment and enthusiasm.
The controversy, spanning nearly two decades (from the mid 1940’s to the mid 1960’s), ostensibly was related to the issue of the merger of the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches (of which Pilgrim was a member) with the General Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. After years of negotiations, the two national bodies united in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ (UCC). Thus, the controversy at Pilgrim was, in part, precipitated by decisions made by the Congregational Church at the national level to redefine the denomination. Between 1947 and 1964, members of Pilgrim voted six times on questions related to some aspect of this merger. The articulated points of controversy within Pilgrim centered on the meaning of our heritage as a “free and autonomous” church and on the implications of membership in the UCC for Pilgrim in the future. On the first five ballots, a majority of the congregation persistently favored maintaining an independent status. However, on the sixth ballot (February 1964), the congregation voted to join the United Church of Christ by a margin of 13 votes (out of a total of 595 with more than 13 ballots disqualified).
There was, of course, a complex mix of currents underlying the merger controversy. One of these surfaced at the annual meeting held on January 17, 1951. At that meeting, the Chair of the Board of Trustees read an unprecedented and lengthy report to the congregation, including ten typed pages discussing controversy surrounding the Council for Social Action (CSA) of the Congregational Christian Churches. He indicated that members of Pilgrim’s Board of Trustees held differing opinions on this issue. The Chair expressed his personal criticism of the CSA for taking the following actions: lobbying the Congress of the United States on broadly defined social issues; criticizing the National Association of Manufacturers; criticizing the American Medical Association; favoring socialized medicine; favoring federal aid to education; being pro-labor; being New Dealers; and advocating a variety of socialist programs. The Chair mentioned the merger controversy and referred to himself as “…an old-fashioned ‘unreconstructed’ Congregationalist…”. This and other evidence suggests that issues other than autonomy and church polity divided Pilgrim’s congregation, and that many of those opposing the merger favored a more limited role for government and less social activism by the church.
Throughout the the long period of controversy, Bill Halfaker made a scrupulous effort to remain neutral – an effort which earned the respect of the congregation. However, he was persistent in advocating that the congregation resolve the issue, saying (at the annual meeting in 1964) that the merger controversy “…has often distracted us from what should be primary concerns and has seriously damaged our public relations for nearly 20 years…”.
A number of consequences flowed from years of disagreement and the decision to act on such a close vote. The most immediate was that many people left Pilgrim. Duluth Congregational Church was formed, and, by the time of the January 1966 annual meeting, 146 individuals had had their memberships transferred to the new church. After these departures, Pilgrim’s active resident membership stood at 614. The prolonged controversy diminished the morale and energy of Pilgrim’s Senior Minister. A positive consequence was that those who remained in the church were more of one spirit than the congregation had been in the previous decade.
Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, the multifaceted Women’s Assembly and other organizations within Pilgrim remained vibrant. During the 1950’s, Pilgrim helped four European families displaced by World War II and the colonial disruptions which followed settle in the United States. Bill Halfaker was deeply involved with the design and installation of four new stained glass windows. Unable to continue Pilgrim’s tradition of installing Tiffany windows (which were no longer available after the bankruptcy of Tiffany Studios in 1932 and the death of Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1933), Halfaker creatively completed the series of auditorium windows and worked closely with Edward Leighton to design two interesting windows for the vestibule which depict important events in Congregational history. A major remodeling project was undertaken in 1958 which, among other things, renovated the Kitchen and replaced the two story atrium of Salter Hall with a second floor chapel. Pilgrim’s membership increased modestly during the late 1960’s. During this period, Pilgrim increased its support for Northland College (Ashland, Wisconsin), which became the subject of interest and patronage, much as Carleton College had been in the first half of the century. On January 31, 1971 (two weeks after Pilgrim’s centennial celebration), William Halfaker completed his tenure at Pilgrim enjoying the goodwill of the congregation.
Royal Francis Shepard, Jr. (B.A. Haverford, 1949; M.A. Columbia, 1950; B.D. Union Theological Seminary (New York), 1954; Th.D. Graduate Theological Seminary (Berkeley), 1971), Pilgrim’s 11th settled minister, began his tenure August 1, 1971 (at the age of 44). The author of multiple published volumes of poetry and other books, Shepard is remembered for his thoughtful and stimulating sermons. His sophisticated and constructive approach to religion is illustrated in his paper “Manifesto for the New Liberal Church” (Christian Century, October 6, 1976, pp. 837-839). Royal Shepard placed a small cross in Pilgrim’s sanctuary which had previously been devoid of such overt religious symbolism. He also oversaw the design and installation of the Roberts’ Memorial Window, installed in the chancel in 1979. With schematic representations of buildings from Yale, Harvard, Oberlin, Fisk, Mount Holyoke and Northland College, this window celebrates Congregational contributions to higher education. A pulpit exchange between Pilgrim and the Argyle United Reformed Church of Bath (England) led to an ongoing series of visits by members of the two congregations. In 1980, Elizabeth Oetinger (Yale College; Yale Divinity School) began her tenure as associate minister, the first ordained clergywoman to serve Pilgrim Church. Royal Shepard completed his incumbency on February 27, 1983.
John D. Fitzgerald, Jr. (B.A. Colorado College; B.D. Chicago Theological Seminary) brought fresh excitement and optimism to Pilgrim when he arrived January 1984 . Jack’s engaging and dynamic personality energized the congregation which was deeply moved by Fitzgerald’s untimely death from cancer fifteen months later. A eulogy published at the time of his funeral at Pilgrim described Jack as “…good at everything, as pastor, leader, father, sailor, actor, swashbuckling wit…Jack was as close to a ‘natural man’ as any we have ever met. To his parishioners, he was as much a friend as leader, eloquent in the pulpit, brilliant, but at the same time so approachable, so understanding, so kind…”. Before, during and after Jack Fitzgerald’s ministry Liz Oetinger was a solid and welcome presence at Pilgrim Church.
John H. Kemp (B.A. Oberlin, 1956; B.D. Chicago Theological Seminary, 1962; D.Rel. Chicago Theological Seminary, 1970), Pilgrim’s minister from October 1986 to May 2000, oversaw a period of welcome stability after 3 1/2 years which included two long interim periods surrounding the inspiring but brief ministry of Jack Fitzgerald. Jack Kemp had links to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, an organization whose activities had been coordinated (1904-1927) by Cornelius Howard Patton (Pilgrim’s minister, 1895-1898) and which had served as the intermediary organization for Pilgrim’s missionaries. From 1957 to 1960, Jack Kemp taught at a Congregational secondary school in Tarsus, Turkey which provided a non-sectarian western education to Muslim boys. During his time in Tarsus, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions merged with other entities to form the United Church Board for World Ministries. Jack would later serve for ten years on the board of directors of this organization. Pilgrim’s entirely mechanical (tracker) organ, built in Duluth by Dan Jaeckel (who had served as Pilgrim’s organist and choir director, 1982-1984) was installed in 1988. This exceptional organ has 3,210 pipes, 49 stops and 67 ranks. The inaugural recital was performed by the renowned French organist Marie Claire-Alain (said to be the world’s most recorded organist) on October 30, 1989. Since then many of the world’s famous organists have performed on this instrument. In 1988, the congregation affirmed Pilgrim as a Just Peace Church “to make a difference in a world in which conflict and injustice abound.” In 1990, the Peace and Justice Committee co-sponsored the formation of a support group at Pilgrim of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). In 1992, Pilgrim Church established the Pilgrim Fund using funds given by Margaret Mitchell. Between 1992 and 2005, more than $400,000.00 of income from the Pilgrim Fund was donated to charitable organizations in the region. A major renovation of the kitchen and other areas of the church, including installation of an elevator, was completed in 1998.
Charlotte Frantz (M.Div. Eden Theological Seminary, 1975) was Pilgrim’s minister from May 2002 to January 2015. Pilgrim had declared itself an Open and Affirming Church on July 14, 2001, condemning “…all acts of discrimination and violence against people because of their sexual orientation…”. During the 2000’s, Pilgrim continued its advocacy for the fair and equitable treatment of all people. A major building project which included replacing the roof and rebuilding the front porch was completed in 2006. Pilgrim’s handbells were reconditioned and Pilgrim’s handbell choir began performing as Bellissimo in 2006. A popular series of community concerts, Pilgrim Presents, was inaugurated. A new governance structure, unique to Pilgrim, was developed and implemented. This structure eliminated many of Pilgrim’s traditional committees.
Karen Schuder became Pilgrim’s 15th settled minister on October 30, 2016 (see the Staff page on this website.)
Throughout its history, Pilgrim members have played an important role in the civic and charitable life of our city. Women at Pilgrim organized Duluth’s first: kindergarten; occupational therapy training program; and domestic science classes. Members of Pilgrim were significantly involved with the formation or development of many of Duluth’s institutions, including: the YMCA; the YWCA (together with the International Institute and the Raleigh Street Neighborhood House); the Bethel and the Bethel Rescue Home for Women and Children (later the Bethel Home for Girls); the Duluth Children’s Home; the Duluth Public Library; reorganization and building of a modern St. Luke’s Hospital in the 1920’s; and the acquisition and donation of land in the 1940’s and 1950’s which now forms the U.M.D. campus and the Bagley nature area.
Below are a number of helpful links for those interested in learning more about the history of Pilgrim Church.
Settled Ministers of Pilgrim Congregational Church
Building in the Promised Land
An Annotated Plan of the First Floor
An Annotated Plan of the First Floor with Additional Notes
Noble Elderkin Comes to Pilgrim Church
Brief Notes on Pilgrim’s Named Funds
Royal Shepard: Manifesto for the New Liberal Church
Author: Mike Zlonis <email@example.com>