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Four orphans, 150 years ago

RED WING -- Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, which is marking its 150th year, has a staff of 2,300 helping thousands of children, families, seniors and the disabled in locations across the state.

RED WING - Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, which is marking its 150th year, has a staff of 2,300 helping thousands of children, families, seniors and the disabled in locations across the state.

Though the nonprofit human services organization now ranks among the largest in Minnesota, its modest beginning goes back those 150 years to a Vasa church and four orphaned Swedish immigrants.
“This is it, right here. This white building is the little church where they fitted out the basement for the four kids,” said LSS CEO Jodi Harpstead during a tour this month of the Vasa Museum just downhill from modern-day Vasa Lutheran Church in Welch.
“This is where it all started.”
Harpstead was joined by LSS board members and staff to visit local landmarks in observance of the organization’s sesquicentennial anniversary.
Children’s Home
The museum building started as a church for a congregation of Swedish settlers led by Pastor Eric Norelius, who is credited as the founder of LSS as well as the school that would later become Gustavus Adolphus College.
According to Vasa Museum Chairwoman Audrey Rosener, the church was built in 1862 to replace a small log cabin the congregation had quickly outgrown. By 1865 it, too, was outgrown and got moved more than a hundred yards away to make room for the third, current church.
The old church was converted to a schoolhouse and became home to four children - boys ages 12, 6 and 5 and a girl age 10 - who were left parentless by a series of tragedies after emigrating as a family from Sweden to St. Paul by way of boat and train.
“They didn’t have comfortable ships like they do these days,” Rosener said. Food was scarce and disease rampant.
A fifth child, a 2-year-old girl, died soon after reaching their destination. Two weeks later the mother died giving birth to a sixth child and, two days after that, the father died.
Norelius brought the orphans to Vasa to be looked after. Sometime later the congregation took up a collection to purchase 10 acres of land and create Vasa Children’s Home.
Anderson Building
The children’s home moved in the 1920s to its current spot off U.S. 61 after Red Wing magnate A.P. Anderson donated part of his family’s land for the institution. It switched in 1954 from an orphanage to a place for children with developmental disabilities.
The center was then downsized starting in the 1970s and 1880s, part of a movement in Minnesota away from large care institutions, said Nancy Rosemore, associate vice president of services for people with disabilities. Staff worked with the children’s home counties to create support services they could go back to.
“We wanted to have kids in neighborhoods, in their community,” Rosemore said.
The beds at Vasa Children’s Home were eventually decertified in 2013 and residents transitioned into group homes, said Monique Strom, regional director of services for people with disabilities. It continues to house four children in a foster care program.
Other services LSS offers statewide include adoption, senior nutrition and counseling. Details and locations can be found at www.lssmn.org .

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