Looking westward from atop the interstate freeway’s “Can of Worms” in Duluth’s West End neighborhood (now called Lincoln Park), you can see the spires and edifices of at least half a dozen churches located in about a six-square-block area.
To be a little more exact (if not precise, memory being somewhat unreliable), throughout much if the twentieth century at least twelve houses of worship were located in that small part of the West End (I insist on calling my old neighborhood that), encompassing the area from about Twentieth Avenue West to Twenty-seventh Avenue West, mainly along or near Third Street.
I grew up in the midst of all those churches; competing denominations and faiths representing many of the established Christian religions, and at least one unorthodox one, housed in a clapboard building no larger than the average West End home, and representing Aimee Semple McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel (Twenty-third Avenue West and Fourth Street). The building is still there.
The mainline churches—three Lutheran, three Roman Catholic, a Covenant, one Presbyterian, one Methodist, two Baptist—had been established in the late nineteenth Century and twentieth, often by immigrants desiring to worship in the manner of their European homelands, and in some cases conducting all or some services in their native languages well into the 1950s.
Thus, two of the Lutheran churches—Bethany (Twenty-third Avenue West and Third Street) and Holy Trinity (Twenty-Seventh Avenue West and Third Street)—have their roots in the state church of Sweden. Zion Lutheran (Twenty-fifth Avenue West and Third Street) was established by Norwegian immigrants. Incidentally, Holy Trinity is celebrating its One hundreth anniversary in 2012. The other two have long since surpassed the century mark of their founding.
The Roman Catholic religion’s parishes in the area had ethnic roots, too.
These were old St. Jean’s (Twenty-fifth Avenue West and Third Street), the French church; Sts. Peter & Paul (Twenty-fourth Avenue West and Fifth Street), Polish, and St. Clement’s (Twenty-first Avenue West and Third Street, pictured, image from the DUluth Public Library), German. None of these still exist as Catholic churches. Only the Sts. Peter & Paul building still stands, used in recent years by other faiths. All three had schools to educate their children in the faith, taught by nuns in full habit. [Editor's note: The congregations 0f these three churches churches joined in the 1970s to become Holy Family Catholic Church, built on the site of St. Jean Baptiste.]
Throwing the Covenants, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians in with the Lutherans, this unique coming together of churches in a compressed area essentially resulted in Catholics vs. Protestants as their teachings, form of worship, and social organizations played themselves out, shaping attitudes on block after block of that part of the West End.
In my lifetime, which began in 1939, suspicions among Protestants and Catholics about one another were rampant. Woe betide the son or daughter of, say, a Lutheran, choosing to marry a Catholic, and, of course, vice versa. My own religious tradition was Lutheran—baptized and confirmed at Bethany—and in my early life it was clearly understood that Lutherans and Catholics do not marry, and probably shouldn’t even date. Catholic families felt the same way.
Still, it did happen, with Protestant families bitterly proclaiming that any children of a mixed marriage in which a spouse turned Catholic would be turned over to the Pope, or, in the opposite case, ex-communication and outright disgrace. It was very difficult for some young couples whose love triumphed over religion.
Never mind that families of the two separate Christian faith streams could live side-by-side on any street in the area and get along very well as friendly neighbors. Just don’t let the sons and daughters marry.
Most of those old taboos have disappeared over the years, just as many of the original buildings are gone. St. Jean’s has an entirely new edifice on the same site and a new name, Holy Family; imposing St. Clement’s, with its belfry accented steeple, was razed in 1992, although it went out of business as a Catholic parish twenty years earlier, and Sts. Peter and Paul was sold when the congregation was absorbed by Holy Family.
The three Lutheran churches along Third Street still exist, Bethany and Holy Trinity in their original buildings, and Zion, with its stone façade, built in the early 1950s on the site of its original wood-frame structure. Today’s First Covenant at Twenty-first Avenue West and Second Street is also on the site of its original building.
Not far away (2600 block of West Second Street) is the building once occupied by Second Presbyterian, now used by the Boys and Girls Club. Wesley Methodist (Twenty-fourth Avenue West and Third Street) persevered until the past decade before being sold to one of the many evangelical churches of non-traditional denominations that are burgeoning today.
This section of the West End also contained, at Twentieth Avenue West and Third Street, another significant religion-based institution, serving, in my early lifetime, as St. Ann’s home for the aged, but earlier as the original St. Mary’s Hospital.
There undoubtedly were other churches in this area of the West End over the years that I failed to notice, or went out of business before I began realizing, as a youth, that the concentration of so many various religions in such a small section of the city was unique. I am not aware that there were ever any synagogues in that part of Duluth, nor did there appear to be many Jewish families.
One reason might be that it was foreboding to be surrounded by so many Christian churches, many with cross-topped steeples, some of which are still visible from the West End’s most imposing structure, the Can of Worms—not to be confused with Martin Luther’s resolve at the Diet of Worms but whose influence had a profound effect 400 years later on a small Duluth neighborhood half a world away.