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Reppe, community ‘touchstone,’ turns 90

Pastor John Reppe prepares for Sunday service at Bassett Church. At 90, Reppe shows no signs of slowing down. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky. 1 / 3
The 70-year-old Bassett Church has undergone extensive renovation over the past 10 years. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.2 / 3
While many communities of faith across the country have experienced a decline in membership and involvement, the Bassett Church near Brimson has grown. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.3 / 3

Tucked into the woods northwest of Two Harbors, nearly an hour from town, sits a small white church dwarfed by the tall white pines surrounding it. Twice a month, the Bassett Church congregation gathers in the little building near Brimson for a service and potluck.

Last weekend, the service had special meaning. Pastor John Reppe, who has led the congregation for more than four decades, turned 90 on Saturday and he and his wife Imogene celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary on Sunday. A cake commemorating the occasions was presented after the service.

“He’s a fixture,” said Dwayne Torfin, the president of the church council. “He’s very, very well-established.”

The seven-decade story of Bassett Church is one of survival and adaptation and Reppe has served the community as its pastor through more than half of those years. At a time when the Pew Research Center is tracking the recent decline of religion in America, Reppe’s little church in the woods has grown. Congregation members credit his kindness, integrity and nondenominational preaching for contributing to the health of the flock.

“In this world where everything is changing, he is such a touchstone and so trustworthy. When he says it, you know it’s true,” said Isabelle Westman, secretary of the church board. She’s been attending Bassett Church since she was a baby.

Last Sunday the congregation gathered on the recently finished patio in front of the church, basking in the sun before the service began. The little church has undergone extensive renovation in the last 10 years. A new foundation was built, the original structure was moved and partially demolished, then rebuilt. The inside now has shiny wood paneling and beautiful beams. In 2007, contractors installed a kitchen sink and toilets – the first running water in the church’s history. The improvements have cost around $40,000 – a hefty sum for the congregation of 25, but Torfin said they’ve been blessed with healthy finances and many in-kind donations.

“The manpower was pretty much church members and volunteers,” he said. “Over all the years of remodeling, I don’t think I’ve ever had to ask for money.”

A collapsing floor and buckling walls first prompted a conversation about renovation, Torfin said. Reppe advised the congregation to wait for a sign before beginning the big, expensive project. The sign came quickly – officials from a local cooperative realized that they had leftover money in their checking account. The coop had been closed for years, so a $500 check was cut for the church, kicking off the renovation fundraising.

“These are the types of things that have gone on with this little church over the years,” Torfin said.

Reppe led an hour-long service on Sunday, tying in fishing metaphors and personal prayers as members of the congregation interjected commentary. All around him were signs of the congregation’s dedication to its little home. Carefully arranged bouquets surrounded the pastor and hand-made felt wall hangings decorated a wall to his right.

“The people are so great up here. It’s just pleasant to come up here,” he said after the service.

Reppe has lived in Two Harbors since 1953, when he started preaching at the Bethlehem and Knife River Lutheran churches. He began making regular trips to the small Bassett community shortly thereafter. At the time, Bassett Church was led by a Finnish-speaking pastor, so Reppe was called upon to perform funerals, baptisms and weddings in English when necessary. He took over and brought the church back to life a decade after the other pastor retired, this year adding a second service to what had been a once-a-month schedule.

During his 60- year career, Reppe has led worship services in International Falls, Castle Danger and Zion Lutheran Church in West Duluth, in addition to his regular work at Bethlehem and Knife River. He officially retired in 1990 but shows no signs of slowing down. In six decades he said he’s adjusted to quite a few cultural changes to keep his ministry relevant.

“We just kind of had to be malleable … but not to lose the message,” he said.

Judy Olson, the church’s treasurer, drives from Two Harbors to Brimson for the services. She’s known Reppe since the 1970s, and began attending Bassett Church in 1987. She said Reppe’s integrity is his greatest strength.

“He is possibly the only person I know who truly lives what he believes,” she said. “He’s a man I admire. And I don’t say that very much.”

She said keeping the memory of the Finnish settlers in the area keeps her coming back, too.

“The thing that is a shining, guiding light for me is the immigrants that came here and carved this out of the wilderness,” she said. “That is truly the appeal for me.”

After Sunday’s service, the congregation gathered in the kitchen in the back of the building to break bread, just like generations before have done. Parishioners piled homemade lefse, wild rice hot dish, cake and pasta salads onto their plates and caught up with one another at the long, cloth-covered tables. A group of kids played tag on the front lawn and Imogene, still every bit the pastor’s wife, made the rounds and chatted with everyone.

“It’s like getting together with family,” said Westman. “I see it as slowly growing. People like the little church out in the woods here.”

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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