By Vera Koskela
Kenai was a small fishing village at the start of Lutheran mission work in 1960. The population in Kenai and the outling area at that time was 2,000. The only modern buildings were the school which housed all twelve grades, the Post Office, the Alaska State Bank, the Methodist Church and its parsonage, and the Kenai Bible Chapel. The only other church in town was the historic Russian Orthodox Church.
Small houses lined the bluff. The streets were made of dirt and stone. The Northern Commercial Store was in a large house and sold everything imaginable. Things hung from the ceiling to the floor, and there was only a narrow pathway between row upon row of merchandise, wall to wall. The town bakery was in another house painted a bright aqua blue with the word “Bakery” crudely scrawled outside with white paint. The town boasted two grocery stores. In one the floor sloped so much you had to continually hang onto your grocery cart so it wouldn’t run away.
The power plant for town was in a garage-like attachment to a house. The airport terminal was another house with a garage to hold the freight. But the airstrip was big enough to handle the “Connie’s” and cargo planes which landed regularly. The telephone directory was a sheet of cardboard, 8 1/2 X 11 inches in size with all the numbers listed on one side. And Yes, we had bars too!
At one end of town there was housing for FAA personnel. On the other end of town was a small military base. The oil wealth was just starting to come in. Most of the people were still commercial fishermen and/or homesteaders. Two fish canneries were located at the mouth of the Kenai River. In summer the inlet shores were lined with gill net sites fishing for salmon, and the inlet was dotted with drifters, spreading their nets behind them. The work was seasonal, so money was scarce. Meat was expensive, and often old. Moose and salmon were plentiful, so they were the mainstay of most people’s diet.
In 1960, the Rev Joseph Frenz from Anchorage Lutheran Church began flying to Kenai once a month to hold services in the evening at Deering’s General Merchandise Store, and then at the small Town Library, which also served as City Hall and the Courthouse. At first about 35 to 40 people from Kenai and Soldotna attended. Soon the Soldotna group formed its own church. In 1963, the Rev Ronald Laue took over the mission work. He came weekly until his church, Zion Lutheran was formed in Anchorage. Then he alternately served both Kenai and Kodiak. The Bielefeld, Carter, Fisher, Johnson, Kelsch, Moore, Tarurianien and Koskela families attended evening services. Pastor Laue started a confirmation class which was held at the Koskela home after school the following Mondays when he was in town. In 1965 we advanced some and started having Sunday School in the furnace room at the Library while confirmation class was held in the main room. Lu Ann Koskela (now Reynolds) was the first one confirmed.
During June of 1967 we received our first full-time pastor. The Rev Ralph Theimer and his family took up residence in a mobile home. The Installation Service and reception were held at the School House. It was a proud and joyous occasion. Thanks to money provided by the International Lutheran Women’s Missionary League land was purchased and plans were drawn for the building of a church and parsonage.
By November (1967) the parsonage was completed. Sunday School classes were held in the basement, confirmation classes and church services were held in the attached two-car garage. Another thrilling step was taken in beginning to build a worship center. On June 1, 1969 Star of the North Lutheran congregation dedicated a beautiful new sanctuary in Kenai. It’s hard to describe the feeling of fulfillment that gave. The congregation started to grow with the arrival of Pastor Theimer, but the presence of a real church building made a great difference.
In 1971 Pastor Theimer accepted a Call to Canada and the Rev Raymond Ernst heard our Call to be Pastor in 1972. Upon Pastor Ernst’s retirement in 1976, the Rev Bruce Betker was called and became our pastor in 1977. In 1987 he accepted a Call to Hong Kong. In 1988 the Rev Herbert Schaan accepted our Call until he resigned in 1993. In June of 1995 our present pastor, the Rev Robert Deardoff arrived with his family. Each one contributing to the growth of our church in their own special way. At present our church has 226 baptized members and 145 communicant members.
In the spring of 1981 we left mission status and proudly became a self supporting congregation, no longer needing the subsidy of the Mission Board of the Northwest District. We are grateful to the Lord for the years they stood beside us and helped us to grow. Star of the North continues to make its presence known by the special grace of God in Christ Jesus. May the Lord be with us always to bless our ministry of Word and Sacrament to the people of our community, and the world.