By: Christa Meland
For many years, people within and beyond The United Methodist Church have contacted the Minnesota Conference archivist and records manager to help them find answers to historical questions: Where was a loved one baptized or married? Whatever happened to a particular congregation that’s no longer around? Where did a specific pastor serve?
Thanks to a decades-long project undertaken by former archivist Thelma Boeder, many pieces of Minnesota Conference history just became more accessible through a comprehensive new resource called “Planting United Methodist Roots in Minnesota, 1837-2018.” The resource, which takes the form of a 658-page PDF document, contains information about thousands of Minnesota United Methodist congregations, and their antecedents or predecessor bodies, over a period spanning nearly 200 years.
The information for each faith community differs based on what Boeder was able to learn about it, but generally includes years of existence and location, and in some cases, how it came to be and what happened to it if it’s no longer around. Some of the entries list classes or small groups that met in someone’s home and never became an official congregation.
“I’m hoping people might look at it and it will help them understand their own local church beginnings better or find the church grandparents went to,” said Boeder, a member of Centennial UMC in Roseville. She notes that in some cases, the document might be a starting point in locating information someone is seeking, and in other cases, it might give them everything they wanted to know.
Boeder became the conference’s archivist in 1978 and started making note of place names that popped up in conference journals or local histories. In the mid-1990s, she started earnestly working on a compilation resource, believing it was important to document the historical facts she was locating. Boeder retired in 2005 and continued working on the resource, finally finishing it last year and publicly sharing it within the past few months.
“What always keeps running through my mind when I look at these places: They represent some people and a story that shouldn’t be forgotten,” said Boeder, a lifelong Methodist who has a master of science in library science and a master of arts in history. “Somehow that aligns with my faith—that these people and these stories are important too. We’re all connected, and I want to be part of preserving that history.”
Working on her project has provided a tremendous learning experience for Boeder, and she can recite all kinds of fun facts about United Methodist history. For example, although the earliest predecessor conference formed in Minnesota in 1856, Methodist work here began in 1837 with a missionary from Illinois coming to preach to the Dakota people. Interestingly enough though, the first Methodist convert wasn’t Native American but instead the one and only Swede living in this area.
Boeder referenced hundreds of sources in order to obtain information for her project—everything from local church files and conference records to county histories and city directories. Some of those sources were in other languages, which presented an interesting challenge.
Boeder is considering copyrighting her project, which will be stewarded by the conference archives. Heidi Heller, the conference’s new archivist and records manager, has already found the document to be helpful as she learns her role. Heller began in late October and succeeds Kathy Spence Johnson, who retired from the position after 14 years.
Archives and record-keeping is a second career for Heller, who was a nursing home administrator for many years. She and her husband also previously owned their own marketing business, for which she did the bookkeeping. But Heller has always had a love of history. So several years ago, she went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in history and then a master of science in information science.
Heller is Lutheran (ELCA) but was specifically interested in working for a nonprofit religious organization when she came across the archivist opening. She has been fascinated to learn about United Methodist history and has been especially interested in and encouraged by the fact that women have been so active within the denomination since the very beginning.
Heller is in the office Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesday mornings and also works part-time as a licensing assistant for the Minnesota Historical Society. In her new role with the Minnesota Conference, she loves organizing record collections as well as answering questions that come across her desk.
“I hope to be a resource that is helpful to not only the conference but all the congregations and individuals out there who might be looking for everything from church history to genealogical information,” said Heller. “I’m excited to be here.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church