A Brief History of Pilgrim Congregational Church 


Pilgrim Congregational Church has had a long and colorful history in Duluth. Organized in 1871, members of its congregation were among the first settlers of a village that was home to barely 3,000 persons— “a muddy, treeless, scrubby, definitely unpleasant expanse of hillside spattered with several dozen frame stores, churches and homes.” [from Duluth’s Legacy, by James Allen Scott, 1974]

Today, with an active Befriender Ministry program, an Open and Affirming welcome to all, and a commitment as a Just Peace congregation, Pilgrim Church continues its journey into the 21st century, a vital, thoughtful community seeking “yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word.”

Pilgrim Church was organized on January 18, 1871 with 16 charter members, with the Reverend Charles C. Salter as minister; average worship attendance was 75 one month later.

The first church building was constructed on two lots on the corner of 2nd Street and 1st Avenue East at a cost of $5,500. Church records state: “Mr. Jay Cooke gave $1,000 to the enterprise.”

The first Pilgrim Church building.

The first Pilgrim Church building, 1870.

A second, larger church was built in 1888 at the corner of Lake Avenue and 2nd Street at a cost of $55,800; membership stood at 225 and Reverend Edward M. Noyes was minister.

The Second Street and Lake Avenue Building

Pilgrim Church was at 2nd Street and Lake Ave from 1888-1917.

The geographic center of the congregation began to move east, prompting a proposal to move the church to a more easterly location in 1913; the 2nd Street church property was sold in 1915 to Julius Barnes and Ward Ames, who erected a building known as the Boys Department of the YMCA.

For more information regarding the early years of Pilgrim Church, see the post at Zenith City Archive.

The current church building at 2310 East Fourth Street was dedicated Christmas Sunday, December 23, 1917; the cost of the building, including site, parish house, furnishing and organ was $157,000, with no mortgage.

In January 1921, Pilgrim Church celebrated its 50th anniversary—the Hoopes Memorial Window, designed by Tiffany, was dedicated; membership was 1,664; Dr. Noble Elderkin was installed as minister; five charter members were present.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s Pilgrim engaged in a variety of outreach activities: began a special interest and support for Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, which continues to this day; began supporting the Reverend Ray Phillips who became a missionary in South Africa in 1929 and continued until 1958; developed interfaith relations, including relationships with Catholic and Jewish congregations; and raised money for numerous causes.

In the 1940s and 1950s Pilgrim contributed to funds used to “relieve a world scourged by war;” helped relocate families displaced by the war; and supported the development of the University of Minnesota Duluth by hosting convocations and Baccalaureate services.

Reverend Bill Halfaker served Pilgrim Church as minister from 1952 to 1971; Ruth Alta Rogers began playing the organ in 1903 and served as choir director and organist from 1919 to 1964.

The Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches merged to form the United Church of Christ in the mid-1950s. After a lengthy process, Pilgrim voted in 1964 to become a member of the United Church of Christ by a vote of 304 votes in favor and 291 votes opposed. By 1966, 146 members had left Pilgrim to form Duluth Congregational Church.

The Roberts Memorial Window in the front of the sanctuary was commissioned in 1979 to honor Arthur Roberts and Pilgrim’s commitment to higher education.

The organ, built by Dan Jaeckel was dedicated October 30, 1988.

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 2001, Pilgrim voted to become an Open and Affirming Congregation.

From 1992 to 2005 the Pilgrim Fund of Pilgrim Congregational Church granted more than $400,000 to organizations and agencies in the Northland. In 2005, the congregation voted to use the Pilgrim fund to secure the mortgage required to replace the roof on the church building, and the granting process was suspended.

Ordained clergy who served Pilgrim during the past 30 years include Royal Shepard (Pastor, 1971-1982); Liz Oettinger (Associate Minister, 1981-1986); Jack Fitzgerald (Senior Minister, 1984-85); Jack Kemp (Senior Minister, 1986-2000); Charlotte Frantz (Minister, 2002-2014); Emmajane Finney (Associate Minister 1987-1992; Deanna M. Euritt (Associate Minister, 1992); Jodi Ondich (Associate Minister, 1993-1999).