I recently received an email from Dan Brekke who lives in Berkeley, California. Mr. Brekke found a picture of his grandfather, Pastor Sjur Brekke, seated with the 1923 confirmation class of Zion Lutheran church on the Viking, Minnesota website. Brekke’s email is the story of how his grandfather emigrated from Norway to Chicago and eventually became pastor at Zion Lutheran Church; I will share an abbreviated version of it with you.
Sjur Ingebrettson Brekke was born in Vik, Norway in 1876. Vik currently is home to about three thousand people on the Sognefjord River and has been a settlement for centuries. The area is well known for the presence of 12th century Stave kirks (medieval wooden stave churches) and glaciers that reside on the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Sjur Brekke was on of five children and came to the United States in the 1880’s. He attended seminary in Red Wing, Minnesota and at a seminary which would be the future site of Wrigley Field in Chicago where he was ordained in 1905. Sjur was a minister of the Hauge Synod which arose in Norway as a reaction to state-run churches and emphasized personal prayer and religious meditation more than religious ceremony.
Sjur Brekke pastored from 1904-1905 at Ebenezer Lutheran and Hauge Lutheran in Chicago which is where he met his wife, Otilia Sieverson who had been born in America. Otilia’s family moved from Frederikstad (near Oslo) in Norway to Chicago which is where she was born in 1884. The Sieverson’s were founding members of Hauge Lutheran in 1900 and it stands to reason that is where Sjur and Otilia met then married in 1905.
Sjur Brekke served at other churches but came to Alvarado, Minnesota in 1918 and served at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. From there, he ministered also to Kongsvinger Lutheran near Alvarado and Zion in Viking; that’s a fair commute but there was a strong train schedule at that time so perhaps that is how Pastor Brekke traveled.
In 1921, Steven was born to Pastor Sjur and Otilia at the hospital in Warren. Steve Brekke is the father of Dan Brekke who then gathered the information upon which I based this column. Steve Brekke still has a collection of letters sent by his father to Otilia during their courtship that are written in both English and Norwegian. Norwegian was probably the first language in the Brekke household and the reason for much teasing for young Steve when the family moved back to Chicago in 1926.
Back in Chicago, Sjur Brekke was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and began a slow, devastating decline. He gave up his assignment at Ebenezer, which is where he had first served, in 1930. Pastor Sjur and Otilia moved to Pasadena, California where Sjur took long walks to maintain his health but soon returned to Chicago where he died in 1932. Otilia kept her feelings for Sjur private until her death in 1975. Her son, Steve, found the letters Sjur had sent Otilia which she had treasured all of those years. Pastor Sjur was known to be a very serious person as evidenced by the stern countenance in the confirmation picture from 1923 but perhaps revealed a more playful side in one of his letters, this time written to his parents. At the time, Sjur was living at his brother’s place near Clear Lake, Iowa and his letter was to inform his parents that he had proposed marriage to Otilia. It was a letter that required privacy and Sjur had written his mother that, “you would smile if you knew where I was writing.” Sjur Brekke-spiritual leader, pastor to many, husband and father, was writing his letter in the outhouse.
1923 – (standing) Floyd Greenley, Solveig Samuelson, Ernest Melvie, Sr., Clarence
Grindeland. (sitting) Selma Holden, Rev. S. J. Brekke, Olga Urdahl