WORTHINGTON — Nearing the conclusion of a five-year process, local members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are almost ready to begin construction on their planned church building near Minnesota 60.

The church, which serves mostly people from Ethiopia and Eritrea, has never had its own building before, explained project coordinator Abebe Alubel.

"All of us used to drive to Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Sioux City, Iowa for worship services," he said.

In 2013, the Worthington group began renting space in Worthington's First Lutheran Church to have meetings. While grateful for the arrangement, it just isn't enough space for their growing congregation, Alubel said. About five years ago, church leaders began looking for a space to buy or build.

The group found a building to refurbish on one occasion, but wasn't able to do so because of zoning issues. It applied twice to build new on sites in town, but those requests weren't granted.

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"I would like to say thanks to the members of the Worthington City Council who worked hard to find a happy medium," Alubel said.

City staff promised to find the church a suitable site, and they did. The city of Worthington sold about four acres of land to the church, where it intends to build a meeting house.

"It's not about a fancy building," Alubel said. "It's more than a building."

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, social life is centered on religion, he explained. When people are happy, they go to church. When people are sad, they go to church. Having a building to meet in will give local church members a place to express their emotions to each other and be together.

"We are going to try to build good citizens of this country," Alubel added. "We want to be part of the community. This is a place where we should invest."

Between 50 and 100 people typically attend Sunday services of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and about 400 turn up for special events. The church serves people from southwest Minnesota, northwest Iowa and southeast South Dakota.

Between the two nationalities, members speak a host of languages — Ethiopia alone has 51 different languages represented, Alubel said — but just about all the church's members speak Amharic, so leaders officiate church services in Amharic.

If Worthington residents have a church, they are more likely to stay in the community, Alubel noted, adding that the planned church building is also likely to draw in more people who attend the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The church has checked off several items on its project to-do list: a site has been chosen (on Minnesota 60 across from Lakeside Travel Plaza), the city council approved the church's conditional use permit and the site plan is finished. The next step is to secure the rest of the cost of construction before ground can be broken. The church already has 40% of the cost raised, and is waiting for approval on a loan for the remainder.

It's tradition in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for the area's archbishop to dedicate and bless the land before a new building is constructed. His Grace Abune Ewostatewos, Archbishop of Minnesota and surrounding areas, visited Worthington on Oct. 4 for this purpose. Ewostatewos laid the building's cornerstone, prayed over the site and gave the local church a new name — Menbere Tsehay Sent Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This name refers to how much the church has grown in the last few years, Alubel explained.

If everything goes according to plan, the church hopes to begin construction early next year.