The Nearly Departed“The Lutefisk Ghost: from Michael Morman’s The Nearly Departed: Minnesota Ghost Stories and Legends

“Is it possible for a place to seal in the energies that have been here?”
-Reverend Terje Hausken

On that frightfully cold January night, the Reverend Terje Hausken waited patiently for the young teens in his confirmation class to settle down. They were seated at long cafeteria-style tables in an ad hoc classroom tucked into a corner of the drafty country church basement. With his usual patience and good humor, Hausken smoothly encouraged the youngsters to stop their chatter and center on his lesson that night on Lutheran liturgy.

The first few minutes ticked by as Hausken, a solidly built, jovial pastor in his late fifties, weaved together biblical teaching and personal stories that kept the students engaged. Confirmation classes on winter nights could be challenging, but his years of pastoral care had prepared him well for most eventualities.

Except for what happened next.

A low, rasping moan-it seemed human the pastor says-started rising from somewhere on the floor above them, from within the darkened church proper. The entire class, and Hausken, fell silent.

“It lasted about fifteen seconds,” he says. “Kind of guttural, like ‘Oooooo.’ It was eerie; I’ll have to say that. An eerie sound, yes. And we could tell it was off in the distance.”

Although the pastor had spent many evenings in his rural church, nothing he had ever encountered there, nothing that he had any familiarity with equaled that sudden disturbing groan from inside his church.

“It almost did sound human,” he admits. “I feel funny saying it was human, but it sounded human.”

No sooner had the moaning died away and the class settled back down then it started up again and once more gripped the attention of everyone there.

Situated on a slight rise in the landscape amid endless fields of corn and soybeans in west-central Goodhue County, the Vang Lutheran Church, ELCA, traces its history to a simple wood-frame church built in 1862. The Norwegian word vang means a field or lawn and is taken from the Vang/Valdres region of Norway from which many of the early Vang parishioners originated.

The present church, designed by Olof Hanson, the first deaf architect in the United States, was finished in 1897. Vang now serves over five hundred parishioners from local townships and from as far away as Northfield.

Painted a dazzling white with a soaring corner bell tower, the Vang church is the quintessential Minnesota country parish. But Hanson’s design flourishes belie its humble location and modest building cost of $5,933.03-including land and architect’s fee.

Hanson’s gently arched stained-glass windows allow natural light to fill the interior, while the bell tower above the main entryway is visible for miles. A more recent low-slung addition does not detract from the original structure’s singular appearance.

Inside the church the polished wood pews spread across the floor in three sections, while a wide balcony with even more pews curves around the perimeter. Near the altar is a striking Hinners Model 10 pipe organ that parishioners bought for $1,020 in 1906. Its original hand bellows were replaced by electric bellows in 1935.

Terje Hausken was still an interim pastor at Vang during the time he taught the confirmation class, “edging toward retirement.”

“This is a good congregation,” Hausken says. “We have a lot of fun on Sundays!”

A Norwegian by birth, Hausken was about five years old when he moved to the United States with his parents in the early 1950s. The family lived in Brooklyn for a year before moving on to Minnesota.

After completing seminary, Hausken was a youth pastor in Edina and served churches in St. Paul and Pine Island, among many others. For most of his ecclesiastical career, he specialized in divorce counseling and church mediation; he’s the author of several books on the subjects and once had a mediation practice with an attorney. Yet Hausken has always stayed close to his pastoral roots by serving various church congregations wherever he has lived.

When he arrived at Vang, Terje Hausken didn’t know that the church already had a reputation for haunting.

He came to learn that parishioners had been reporting odd noises and unexpected incidents for many years. Then he discovered that there is the legend of a ghost photograph that was allegedly taken inside the church sometime in the 1930s. It is said to picture an apparition. The claim has been included in several books. But Hausken has never seen the photo, nor does he know of anyone who has. Several parishioners, some of whom have been members of the congregation for over half a century, know nothing of such a photograph. It may be an urban legend or, as Hausken says in this case, a rural legend.

But what Terje Hausken and those young teens heard that night was most decidedly real, nothing legendary about it.

“It wasn’t the wind,” Hausken asserts. “I can’t do a good imitation of [what we heard], but you know how the wind sounds; you can tell it’s that.”

Further, Hausken says the deep “moan,” as other people that night described it, “was definitely in the building; no question about that. We heard it twice. It stopped and then started again about ten minutes later.”

One girl was so upset she began to cry.

Hausken said the noise seemed to originate from somewhere above where the class was sitting, in the general direction of the left, rear corner of the church; above that space is an attic that opens off the balcony.

Jim Sviggum is an adult member of the parish who was assisting the pastor at the confirmation class that night. The Sviggums have attended Vang church for decades. Jim Sviggum says he clearly heard the “weird” and “eerie” noise, as he calls it, and that he had never heard anything like it before. He has been in and out of the church all his life.

Neither could Hausken compare it to anything he’d heard there, though he’s often there at night and alone for much of the time.

Hausken is careful in assessing what he thinks it might have been. It was not human, he says, but it “sounded human.”

“Buildings do make funny noises,” Hausken adds cautiously. “But all I can say is, and I don’t know structurally what this building is capable of, but all I know is it wasn’t the wind. I know that. It wasn’t even windy outside.”

Rather than puzzling over the incident, Hausken takes a light-hearted approach.

“I know that if they were spirits, which they aren’t, but if they were spirits they wouldn’t hurt me anyway. Besides I hope they’re Norwegian, so I can talk to them!”

Hausken remains fluent in the language.

His ease in handling such a strange affair is clear, too, in what happened after the second time he and the class heard the sound.

“I told them that I hated to do this, but we had to go up into the sanctuary because we had to use the hymnals since we were working on the creed …the worship service itself. They asked, ‘Do we have to?’ but I told them there was nothing wrong.”

But one young teen decided he’d have some fun, Hausken says. The boy quietly left the group and headed upstairs. The rest of the class trooped up the steps and opened the door to the church, whereupon the boy leaped out from behind crying, “Boo!” at the same time.

“Those kids were really mad at him,” Hausken laughs. “They started punching him, and I [joked] that they should hit him as hard as they could.”

For his part, the youngster who played the joke, Tyler Underdahl, says he thought the noise might have been the furnace kicking on. At other times, the pipe organ’s air pump will make funny noises, but Hausken says it wasn’t turned on that evening. Hausken, Sviggum, his son Peter Sviggum, and others don’t think that what they heard could be attributed to anything mechanical.

It turns out that odd events are nothing new for the Vang congregation.

Stories have circulated for years that people, especially women and men working in the kitchen before the annual fall dinner, have heard voices or unusual sounds there; some members of the congregation have refused to enter the church at night or stay there alone when the church starts emptying out.

Bev Sviggum, Jim’s mother and a member of the congregation for over sixty years, says she was in the church countless times “when I still drove.” Despite being by herself, she “never felt alone.”

“I always thought there was somebody with me. I thought it was probably God, that it wasn’t a ghost. But then I heard some noises, and I kind of figured God wouldn’t make noises.”

A stairway that has since been taken out seemed to be the center of the out-of-place noises Bev Sviggum heard.

“There were more noises from in there than anywhere else,” she says. “It was a kind of a squishing movement, like a person was going up the stairs. But the main thing was, if I was up here alone, I never felt like I was alone.”

Bernice Stenhaug, another longtime member, says she’s heard lots of unusual noises there, but more so during the daytime when she was a volunteer cleaning the church. Sometimes people will want an escort to their cars in the parking lot, she says, after hearing about the church ghost.

“We were here a while back, and someone heard something. Wind? I don’t know. I’ve just gotten used to it.”

Amusingly, the strangest incidents have occurred around the time of the annual fall dinner-a lutefisk gala-the second Wednesday of each October.

n fact, Reverend Hausken says jokingly that any worrisome noises or unexplained incidents at Vang should be attributed to “the lutefisk ghost.”
But Bev Sviggum says it’s more than the typical joking over the nutritional benefits of this traditional Norwegian dish.

“[Lutefisk] cookers that we put in one place we’d find somewhere else,” Bev says. “But then maybe someone else did come in and move them. I can’t swear they didn’t. But they weren’t where I’d left them. Then we’d argue about where we’d left it.”

Silverware, dishes, pots, and pans would be moved around as well.

Finally, Bev says smiling, she and her coworkers decided “we’d just put the ghost in charge of it all” until the day of the dinner. They figured the ghost would chase away anyone looking to disrupt the lutefisk feed, which attracts upward of 1,200 people each fall.

Hausken isn’t ready to dismiss the kitchen mischief as people simply forgetting where they put things. He has been told stories of oddball happenings around the time of the fall dinner by quite a few parishioners.

“I’ve heard it from others . . . that things would get significantly moved around, where it’s obvious someone has come in and moved items. I’ve heard that quite a bit.”

Hausken and Bev Sviggum admit it’s possible an anonymous parishioner may have been the culprit. Or, as Hausken is known to joke with his parishioners, the lutefisk itself might be responsible for temporary memory failure.

“With those lutefisk fumes, people really aren’t responsible, you know, they get delirious!”

Terje Hausken, born in Norway, has never eaten lutefisk. But, he adds diplomatically, “I’m told this lutefisk is the best around.”

If there is a ghost-or perhaps a poltergeist-in Vang Lutheran Church, a possible candidate could be the church’s pastor in the 1890s.

His name was C. A. Mellby. He served Vang from 1892 to 1898. But what makes several parishioners, and Terje Hausken, think it could well be Reverend Mellby is what happened in 1895.

Reverend Mellby was given a leave of absence to study in Europe. While he was gone, the congregation voted to build a new church-the present one designed by Olof Hanson-about a mile north of the original church location. The Vang Church cemetery is still at the first site.

The new church was built without Mellby’s knowledge, a violation of church procedure at the time. There is speculation that several influential church members on the north end of the church boundaries thought the church was too far away from them. Some church members on the south end of the district were so upset they switched congregations.

No one knows what was said when Mellby returned, but he soon resigned to take a teaching position at St. Olaf College, where he remained for fifty years. He did return once to Vang to preach on the occasion of the church’s eighty-fifth anniversary.

But it is believed Reverend Mellby was very angry with the congregation’s decision and that it is his spirit that haunts the church.

“It’s that old Norwegian minister, I’m telling you that!” Terje Hausken says with a grin.

Bev Sviggum agrees. She definitely thinks there’s a presence of some sort in the church.

“I think it’s the pastor. He’s kind of watching out for us.”

Vang Lutheran Church is neither spooky nor forlorn. The church and its bucolic surroundings could be the centerpiece of a Grant Wood painting. Dozens of families can trace their church roots back for generations; there is a sincere affection for their country parish and its history.

For his part, Reverend Terje Hausken takes a benevolent and open-minded attitude toward his church’s unusual ghost stories.

“This is not against our faith or anything like that. We sometimes can’t explain what we hear or what we see, but that’s why they call it mysteries. You wonder what that is. If this is what a haunting is, then they don’t scare me because the stories that I hear are comforting stories, very animated stories. In history there is such a connectedness that I think it’s important that we remember these stories well. They connect us to our past, and that’s important. They are charming; they lend character to a place. They pique people’s interest. . . . They’re certainly not scary, not frightening.”

But Terje Hausken keeps open the possibility that there are more things than stories circulating at Vang Lutheran Church.

In a cautious, ecclesiastical manner, he says, “I don’t believe in ghosts . . . I don’t think.”

All rights reserved by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.