Morning Edition

A Norwegian Christmas Eve tradition rings on in Renville County

A man sits
For Christmas Eve, Robert Lerohl from Sacred Heart, Minn. will visit the Vestre Sohn church near Maynard, Minn., as he has for more than 50 years.
Cathy Wurzer | MPR News

Robert Lerohl is a tall, strong man with a wide friendly smile, a hearty laugh and twinkling eyes.

He lives in Wang Township in the far western part of the state that’s named after a municipality in Norway called Vang. It is here where he takes part in a yearly Christmas Eve tradition: a few minutes of the pealing and tolling of a big, old church bell in a little country chapel.

The exterior of a church.
The Vestre Sohn church near Maynard, Minn.
Cathy Wurzer | MPR News

Lerohl was born here 88 years ago. His family has farmed the same piece of land for the past 152 years. His ancestors, like many of his neighbors, were mostly Norwegian immigrants — many of whom migrated here in the 1860s and 70s.

At the center of Wang Township, you’ll find a small, white clapboard church called Vestre Sogn.

It means “Western Parish” in Norwegian. The church is as big as a living room. There are rows of simple, spindle-back wood chairs, not pews. And, there are two ornate and ancient pump organs in each corner, flanking a lectern that’s at the front of the church.

There are no stained-glass windows here. It’s unpretentious and welcoming. It was built after the original church burned down in 1913.

A view of the inside of a small rural church.
Decor inside Vestre Sohn.
Cathy Wurzer | MPR News

Lerohl’s great-great-grandfather, Christan Narvestad, donated the land for the church. He also started a tradition that still lives on today. Every Christmas Eve, “Old Man Narvestad” would walk over to the church and ring the bell at 5 p.m.  

The tradition originated in Norway, where church bells ring for an hour on Christmas Eve. In Wang Township, the bells toll for five minutes. For many in the area, the sounds of the bells means Christmas has begun.

Host Cathy Wurzer caught up with Robert near Granite Falls, Minn. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.