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Erik L. Petersen
By Jacob Hodnefield (Volume XV: Page 176)

Most of the Norwegian clergymen who came to serve the new settlements in America were Lutherans -- a natural situation, as the state church in Norway was Lutheran. Erik L. Petersen was one of the few who were of another persuasion. He came to the United States a Roman Catholic and subsequently went over to the Protestant Episcopal Church; in the Minnesota diocese he took charge of certain Episcopal missions. His experiences demonstrate the difficulties encountered by a man who deviates from the pattern. Because his story illustrates a condition that was general in Norwegian settlements as to the attitude of the immigrants toward churches other than their own, it has a place in the history of immigration. {1}

Erik L. Petersen was born in Christiania, Norway, on October 27, 1844, the son of Emil Petersen and his wife, née Brinkman. From his father he inherited the emotional temperament that characterized his life and activities. Apparently he was left to himself a great deal during his boyhood. The family was poor, and little provision was made for his early education. Through the years, however, he managed to acquire considerable learning, with some assistance from relatives and friends.

As a child he was befriended by a Catholic priest in Christiania who had charge of the new St. Olaf Church, a mission of the Roman Catholic Church. This priest undoubtedly was J. C. Lichtle. Petersen has stated that he became acquainted with Lichtle in 1857, which would have been in the boy's thirteenth year. The influence of this priest turned him towards the Catholic Church and resulted in his subsequent affiliation with it.

Erik became interested in dramatics at an early age, and as a consequence he prepared for the stage. He made his debut at the Bergen Theater on April 7, 1859, when he was fourteen. How successful this venture was, it is difficult to determine. He played in the theater in Christiania from 1860 to 1862. After that he traveled as "improvisator" (someone who entertained by giving readings or declamations) until 1866, probably visiting Germany during that period. He spent at least part of the time in Denmark, for apparently his last engagement was in the Copenhagen theater. He was not more than twenty-two, therefore, when he left the theatrical profession after seven years.

The following year, 1867, he began his studies in preparation for the ministry. At one time he had intended to enter a monastery, but circumstances decided otherwise. The Catholic mission in Norway, represented by the St. Olaf Church in Christiania, was then controlled by the Barnabites from Germany, and was under the supervision of Father J. D. Stub. Petersen would have preferred to go to Germany to train for the priesthood, but he did not have the means. With the assistance of Father Stub, he was entered in the Barnabite Cloister in Aubigny a la Mer, France, in 1867, a step which he afterwards regretted.

In an autobiographical essay, "Cloister Days, {2} he tells about the journey via Lübeck and Paris to the House of St. Alfonso de Liguori, where he was to remain for a year as a novice. There he entered upon his period of contemplation, self-examination, and preparation. The institution was Italian in origin, and the members were not popular in the French community where it was situated. There were four priests, three lay brothers, and four novices. The group lived in solitude. The church was small, on a desolate country road. At Aubigny, Petersen read the breviary and was given permission to study French and Latin. After a time he obtained the freedom of the library, and there he became acquainted with a rich store of French literature.

He was in doubt where he should go from Aubigny, as Father Stub and the Barnabites had relinquished the mission in Norway. Father Stub assisted him again, however, and he journeyed to Monza, Italy, to the Santa Maria de Carrobiolo cloister, a Barnabite institution, which was chosen for him because there were supposed to be several Scandinavian students there. He found but one Scandinavian student, a Swede. The place was unattractive, the accommodations were poor, and he did not feel welcome. He was soon transferred to the mission seminary of San Colocero in Milan, Italy, a Jesuit institution. Subsequently he went to the College Brignole Sale, an institution where missionaries for America were educated.

Petersen now determined to become a missionary to the Norwegians in America. This decision was induced by false reports about religious conditions in the New World. Echoes of the controversies among the Norwegian Lutheran synods in America reached Europe, and these apparently were interpreted erroneously. His own explanation in "Cloister Days" is clear and to the point:

St. Paul, Minnesota, where Bishop T. L. Grace resided, was a place where thousands of my countrymen had settled. Among them, so I had been told, was a movement on foot towards Catholicism, and Catholic priests of Scandinavian nationality were all that was needed to lead said movement.

Such were the reports which had induced me to go to America, and to St. Paul in particular. Having arrived there I soon found out, to my great dismay, that the idea of a tendency among the Norwegians towards Catholicism was a mere phantom arising from a misunderstanding of the actual state of things. The facts were: In the course of the dissensions among the Scandinavian Lutherans in America, the "Synod" had repeatedly been charged with Catholic sympathies -- a suspicion which said "Synod" through its efforts in favor of "secret confessons," "secret conferences," etc., had itself corroborated, and in this way the Catholics had very naturally been led to look upon the Synod as a connecting link between their church and the Lutherans.

I was not long in finding out the mistake, and it was this discovery that perfectly dismayed me.

Petersen was ordained a deacon by the Archbishop of Genoa in 1872, and he migrated to America later the same year. He was ordained a priest in the cathedral in St. Paul, Minnesota, by Bishop T. L. Grace, December 21, 1872.

The next few months must have been a period of bewilderment. He probably realized soon after his arrival that the Norwegian Lutheran immigrants offered no field for the activities of a Catholic priest. For a brief time he substituted in the French St. Louis Church in St. Paul, and there his official acts are recorded for the period from February 23 to May 19, 1873.

It is not known what occupied him during the latter part of 1873. Probably it was during these months that he came under the influence of Bishop Henry B. Whipple of the Protestant Episcopal Church. In the journal of the Minnesota diocese for 1874 it is recorded that "the Reverend Eric Petersen, priest of the Church of Rome, was received into the Church on the day of Intercession in St. Mark's Church, Minneapolis." The date was December 5, 187, according to Petersen. {3}

There were probably several reasons why he decided to join the Protestant Episcopal Church. His daughter states that "his reason for leaving the Catholic Church was his inability to accept the papal decree that the pope was infallible." This decree had been issued by Pope Plus IX on July 18, 1870. At that time Petersen was a student in Italy and in the midst of the controversy regarding this pronouncement. He probably had entertained objections to it since its enunciation. Moreover, he no doubt welcomed the greater opportunity of reaching his countrymen from an Episcopal pulpit. The Norwegians did not harbor the same animosity towards the Episcopal Church that they did towards the Roman Catholic.

The Episcopal Church appointed Petersen a missionary to the Scandinavians, with headquarters in Faribault, Minnesota. There a Norwegian congregation was organized, and services were held in the old chapel of the Bishop Seabury Mission. Besides serving the Faribault congregation, Petersen preached at various other places in the diocese. {4} To facilitate his work he translated the Mission Service into Norwegian. This was printed in Chicago in 1875. Later he made a translation of the entire Book of Common Prayer which was published in 1880. He is quoted as saying: "My translation of the Mission Service has been introduced, but without success. The Scandinavians cling to their ancient Lutheran service, and any alteration in that respect is useless." {5}

In an article in Spirit of Missions, entitled "Among the Scandinavians in Minnesota," Petersen reports on his work as follows: "It was on the 5th of December, 1873, that the Rt. Rev. Bishop Whipple received me into the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Parish of St. Mark's, Minneapolis. My first desire after having been introduced into the Church was to begin a Mission for the Scandinavians in Minnesota." He reports further that his first missionary tour began January 5, 1874, and took him to "St. Peter, St. James, Mankato, Kasson, Rochester, Winona, Red Wing, Hastings, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Northfield, and Faribault."

My sermons treat more of moral than dogmatic themes, because I wish to avoid disputes with the Lutheran preachers and bring my instructions within the understanding of my people.

. . . . Now what is the meaning of this Mission among the Scandinavians? Chiefly to make our Church known amongst them, and, if possible, in the course of time, in a peaceful manner, to join together the Lutheran and the Episcopal Churches here in the West . . . . But, if any one should look for great and immediate results, he would deceive himself in a most cruel manner.

. . . . The Scandinavians are divided into many Lutheran sects, every one insisting that it is the legitimate daughter of the Lutheran Church in the old country . . . . The Scandinavians who come to this country are nearly all grown people, and, as a class, do not understand the English language. This makes it impossible for them to follow English preaching or service. It does not seem that this will be better in the future, because the Lutheran preachers do all that is possible to keep the people away from the English schools as well as from the English churches. Some of them go so far as to say that it is impossible to preach true Christianity in the English language. . . . The only way to propagate the truth in this wide Mission field would be to have a reasonable number of Prayer Books, and other good treatises, printed in the Swedish and Norwegian languages . . . . My work is for the coming generation which will be more accustomed to the English language and American life than the present, and will better appreciate the blessings of the Episcopal Church. {6}

Thus it is evident that his missionary work among the Scandinavians was disappointing. Here and there a few Norwegians and Swedes joined his church but their number was small. It was an almost hopeless struggle against insurmountable obstacles.

Petersen had a strong voice and was a great orator. Those who heard him testify that he preached powerful sermons. He stood high in the estimation of Bishop Whipple and other leaders of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Minnesota. {7} And even though the visible results of his service in the Episcopal Church were not great, the fourteen years of his ministry had a real value. Petersen's erudition was widely known. He was at home in at least seven languages, and at times he augmented his income by giving private language lessons.

During his service in the Episcopal Church Petersen carried on amazing literary activities, the most notable being his contributions to Norwegian papers in the form of book reviews. Occasional lectures of his appeared in the public press, as well as articles on various subjects. His comments on books appeared principally in Budstikken {8} of Minneapolis, and were written during the late seventies and the eighties until July, 1887, four months before his death. These reviews vary from short articles to longer ones of two, three, or even four columns. In them he undertook no less a task than that of interpreting to the intelligent Norwegians in America the new books that were within their reach and might be within their interest. And he assumed that their interest had a wide range. The task was prodigious, but the result was happy.

A continued series in Budstikken appeared under the general heading "Studier ved læsebordet" (Studies at the Reading Desk), which began with the issue of February 26, 1879, and continued until toward the end of 1883. Another series had the caption, "Fra bogladen" (From the Bookstore).

The range of his reading and reviews was extraordinary. It included almost anything of interest published in Norwegian in this country, many works appearing in Norway and Sweden, and occasionally books in other languages. He even included Latin titles. He had a great interest in theology, church history, and literature; but he also reviewed books of practical value in everyday life. Fiction was a frequent topic, usually Norwegian but also English fiction. His subjects included literary history and criticism, Bible history, Norwegian church history, Lutheran church reports and church calendars, songbooks, temperance books, theology, the English Reformation, Catholic literature in the three northern kingdoms since the Reformation, dictionaries of the Bible, the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, textbooks, German and French grammars, books on agriculture, cookbooks, the literature of periodicals, the history of the theater in Norway, emigration from Norway to Holland and England, the language controversy in Norway, the works of Bunyan, Boyesen, and Alexander Kielland, of Bjørnson, Ibsen, and Kristofer Janson, a biography of Garfield, the lectures of John Ireland, the Iron Age in the north of Europe, and so on.

In his reviews he was very outspoken, and commented freely on the subject matter, the style, the composition, and the author. If his criticism was favorable, he praised liberally and described wherein the merit lay. If his criticism was adverse, he condemned unsparingly. Thus he was very favorable in his estimate of Henrik Ibsen and less favorable in his criticism of other Norwegian writers. He praised Bjørnson as a writer of fiction but condemned him as a theater director and attacked his attitude on religion. He was severe, sometimes scathing, in his criticism of certain Lutheran synods and pastors in this country. The Norwegian Synod apparently drew most of his attacks. He was perhaps somewhat partial to the Catholic Church, even though he had left it. He was consistent in his defense of Christianity and quick to oppose any attack upon the Christian faith, although his loyalty was somewhat divided among churches. He discussed history and literature as from a professor's chair. At all times he spoke with an air of authority, an essential attribute of a competent reviewer.

Besides his activities in literary criticism, two autobiographical series deserve special mention. One is a group of articles that appeared in Albert Lea posten in 1883 under the general heading, "Theaterliv; billeder og minder" (Theater Life; Portraits and Recollections) {9} In this series he told of his own experiences in the theatrical profession and added a number of biographical sketches of notable players on the Norwegian stage. The second is his "Cloister Days," which appeared in Scandinavia in 1884-85, as already mentioned. In it he narrated his experiences in France and Italy during his preparation for the priesthood.

On December 9, 1873, Petersen had married Anne. Sophie Olson, a widow, who was born in Norway in 1838. Three children were born of this union, of whom two died in infancy. The surviving child, Mrs. H. J. McComb, is living in California. Mrs. Petersen died in Santa Aha, California, in 1923.

During the middle eighties Petersen began to suffer from dropsy and heart disease. To these was added eventually melancholia, and the result was a disturbed mind. On his last appearance in the Faribault church he was too ill to stand, and remained seated while delivering the sermon. He ended his own life during an attack of illness on November 2, 1887. {10}


<1> Information about Petersen's early life and education, as well as about the period of his residence in Faribault, Minnesota. was obtained from his daughter, Mrs. Sophie Petersen McComb, of Santa Ana, California, in letters written March 27, August 11, September 16, and October 31, 1934. Details concerning his religious activities in Minnesota were received in interviews with Mrs. C. C. Dokken and other residents of Faribault, Minnesota; with Dr. C. C. Rollit, St. Paul, and other members of the Episcopal Church; and with Father Ralquin, St. Paul, and others of the Catholic Church.

<2> Scandinavia (Chicago), 1:194-197, 220-228; 2: 255-260, 279-281, 303 (1884, 1885).

<3> Protestant Episcopal Church, Diocese of Minnesota, Journal, 1874, p. 65. A list of the clergy in the Journal, 1878, p. 9, notes that Petersen was received into the Episcopal Church on December 3, 1873.

<4> Diocese of Minnesota, Journal, 1878, p. 88.

<5> George C. Tanner, Fifty Years of Church Work in the Diocese of Minnesota, 1857-1907, 488 (St. Paul, 1909); William C. Pope, The Church in St. Paul, 234-237 (St. Paul, 1911). Pope reports the addition of Erik L. Petersen to the Episcopal clergy and gives the Swedish translation of an invitation by himself (Pope) to the Swedes in St. Paul to attend services by Petersen in the Church of the Good Shepherd, Twelfth and Cedar streets. St. Paul. The invitation states that the Swedish ritual will be used.

<6> Spirit of Missions (New York), 38:336 (June, 1874).

<7> Minnesota Missionary (Faribault, Minnesota), November, 1887, p. 5.

<8> Budstikken, 1879-1887.

<9> Albert Lea (Minnesota) posten from early in 1883 to May 11 of thc same year.

<10> Faribault (Minnesota) Democrat, November 4, 1887; Faribault Republican, November 9, 1887; Minnesota Missionary, November, 1887, p. 5.

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