By Bill Meyer
Blackland Reporter Staff
Photos by Bill Meyer
In February of 1876 Reverend J.O. Cavallin organized New Sweden Evangelical Lutheran Congregation with forty-three members. For three years services were held in school houses, members’ homes, and in a little stone church in Gregg. The church built its first building and dedicated it without debt in 1879. In 1923 the congregation moved into a new building located just two miles down the road. Today, 135 years after it was first organized, people still gather for worship on Sunday mornings at New Sweden Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The church is easy to find. Five miles north of HWY 290, along FM 973, you’ll see a sign for the church. Turn right on New Sweden Church Road and go another two miles. The winding country road takes you past corn fields, farm houses, and livestock. The copper church steeple, which stands 104 feet high and can be seen from miles away, adds to the scenic view. The church building sits on a hill surrounded by rolling green pastures and the view from the front porch is probably not much different than it was almost 90 years ago when the current building was completed. Inside the sun shines through stained glass windows revealing a beautiful sanctuary.
The members are friendly and eager to meet guests. The congregation consists of people from all walks of life, with every age group and
different cultures represented. There are families, young couples, and singles. Many of the members have been attending their entire lives, with about a dozen people being direct descendants of the founding members. There are also newer members who attend regularly. About half of the congregation has joined within the last ten years
The services are traditional Lutheran with worship, the reading of the Bible, and Pastor Hans Lillijord delivering the sermons. His messages are informative, inspiring, and encouraging. Communion is served on Sundays and is open to visitors and guests. Towards the end of the service, prayer is offered up for people on the church prayer list, the troops, and first responders..
Pastor Lillejord has been serving the congregation for the past nine years. His ministry has taken him to different parts of the country, serving parishes in South Dakota, Minnesota, California, and Hawaii. Though he has enjoyed all of his experiences, he says this is a special place. Serving here allows him to be closer to his congregation and less formal. Pastor Lillejord is a worker-priest, choosing to hold a secular job while pastoring the church. He says it helps him better understand the day-to-day lives of members. “I’ve always had a parish and a secular job. I think it’s a good thing. I think it makes you a little more sensitive to the fact that people in their everyday lives have challenges in the workplace. It’s not an easy place to be.”
The church welcomes guest and new members. One of the members, Sharron Robbins, says they accept new people like family. “It becomes a big, church family and everybody cares about each other and supports each other, especially when they’re going through tough times,” she says. Another member, Mavis Takatsuka, spoke highly of the opportunities to be active in the church. “You can be as active as you want or as inactive as you want and you’re not judged.” It’s obvious the members love their church and appreciate the opportunity to be a part of each others lives. Dorothy Roundtree said she and her husband bought land in the area because of the church. “It’s really a family kind of an atmosphere where we’re all in this thing together,” she says. “It’s what makes this thing so neat.”
When asked what he wanted people to experience when attending, Pastor Lillejord says he wants people to feel unequivocal acceptance. “I’d like to have them experience a warm, caring community that reflects what Christianity is all about. I’d like them to have a good worship experience, too…and hear a decent sermon.”
New Sweden church stays rooted in its Sweden heritage, with an annual Santa Lucia celebration in December and a Julotta service on Christmas morning. They also have a Maundy Thursday service during Holy week, a sunrise service on Easter Sunday, a Fourth of July sing-a-long, and a Country Christmas sing-a-long.
The church also participates in the Texas Ramp Project which builds wheelchair ramps at the homes of elderly or disabled people in need. They also gather donations for care packages to send to the troops. The children participate in Sunday school, a children’s sermon, Vacation Bible School, and a Bible Camp in the summer. Services are held at 10:30 on Sunday mornings and there are home Bible studies on the second and fourth Tuesday evening of each month. If you would like more information you can visit their website at http://www.newswedenelca.