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A Norwegian church in San Pedro honors a saint who brings light to darkness. Fitting in a pandemic

Pastor Morgan Berg leads an outdoor service on St. Lucia's Day at the Norwegian Seamen's Church.
Sunday marked St. Lucia’s Day, one of the biggest holidays on the Scandinavian calendar. Pastor Morgan Berg, 37, led an outdoor service at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In an empty nook of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in San Pedro, long-ago memories bubble up like sea foam.

Here, sailors would huddle thousands of miles from home and regale one another with yarns about their lives. In another corner of the church long since repurposed, the seafarers gathered to smoke before settling down to read newspapers from tiny towns in Norway and drink coffee. When they weren’t listening to a Lutheran pastor’s sermons, the mariners found bunks to sleep in, a pool table for entertainment and phone booths to call home. It was equal parts nourishment for body and soul.

The church, perched near the Port of Los Angeles, dates to the early 1940s, a haven for ship-weary crews who might be anchored for a week or two between sailings that often kept them away from the Nordic country for months at a time.

The chapel still boasts a nautical theme: A small wooden ship hangs from the sanctuary ceiling; a painting depicts crashing waves.

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The adornments bear witness to the church’s fading past, even as it transitions to a new phase — one in which homesick college students and Norwegian expatriates living in L.A. take comfort in the trappings of home.

“Today, it’s more kind of a gathering place for what we usually call ‘modern seamen,’” the Rev. Morgan Berg said.

Pastor Morgan Berg, 37, at the Norwegian Seamen's Church.
Pastor Morgan Berg, 37, at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church. “Today, it’s more kind of a gathering place for what we usually call ‘modern seamen,’” he said.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

On Sunday morning, the church celebrated St. Lucia’s Day, one of the biggest holidays in Scandinavia. The saint, a 4th century Sicilian girl martyred for her Christian faith, is represented as a woman wearing a white robe, a red sash and a crown of glowing candles.

“She brought light into darkness,” literally and metaphysically, said Berg — an uplifting observance fitting for a year that has seen the worst pandemic in a century.

Traditional St. Lucia’s Day celebrations feature a woman or girl dressed as Lucia, wearing the signature candle-adorned headpiece, leading a procession of singing children dressed as Santa’s helpers, gingerbread men and “star boys” in spangled pointy white hats. But like so many other events in 2020, this year’s parade and live concert were upended by the coronavirus, which is raging unchecked in L.A. County and beyond.

The church, instead, held a service in its backyard. Soft Norwegian songs and prayers filled the crisp morning air. Berg, dressed in a white robe with purple embellishments, led the intimate gathering.

Though the service was smaller and shorter than usual, Christian Duesund, 17, said he was just happy to be able to celebrate with the congregation that he grew up with.

“It was good that everybody could get together; that’s what really matters,” Christian said. “It just feels more normal to be in person than on a Zoom call.”

Christian was there with his Norwegian-born parents, his brother and dog, who drove up from Orange County for the service, as they do every other week. His mother, Sissel, said there are much closer churches, but “this is more like our home.”

Closing out the service was a video screening of a musical service prepared in Norway and sent over by Vegard Husby, the church’s former pastor. He and his wife, Mari, were blocked from returning to the country because of the pandemic, said Liv Johansen, a part-time church employee.

When the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission arrived in San Pedro in 1941, Norway reportedly boasted the largest shipping fleet in the world, with hundreds of vessels visiting the Los Angeles harbor every year. The Seamen’s Church and dozens of others like it, including one constructed in the early 1950s overlooking San Francisco Bay, were built in ports around the world.

“The sailors got to be here and have some connection with the home country” more than 5,000 miles away, said Jay Cook, an organist whose great-grandfather helped found the San Pedro church.

The freighter Ferncroft glides into Los Angeles Harbor, its Norwegian flag snapping crisply in the December morning gust.

The house of worship became not just a hub for mariners but an anchor for the 10,000 Norwegians living in L.A. in the early 1940s, according to “50 Years on Beacon Street,” a Norwegian-language history book published by the church. To accommodate the growing numbers, the church moved from up the hill to its current location, atop the Beacon Street bluff overlooking the Port of Los Angeles, in 1951.

Until the mid-1970s, 400 Norwegian ships came through the harbor each year. By 1985, that number had been reduced by half, the Rev. Arne Oystese told The Times that year.

Catherine Chiaro, an Oslo native who moved to Southern California in 1987 and now works as a church administrator, remembers hunting down hometown newspapers for visiting sailors, who came in each year by the hundreds.

Now, the building sees a different kind of bustle. On a recent weekday afternoon, Chiaro and and Tone Grunwald, who bakes for the church and works in its gift shop, helped customers purchase traditional Christmas decorations: julenisse, a Santa-like gnome, and julebukk, the Yule goat.

And at its annual Christmas market earlier this month, the church sold out of the bright yellow S-shaped saffron buns called lussekatter that mark the holiday season.

“People are looking for that nostalgic sense,” Cook said. “Especially when, you know, isolation is the norm.”

The pandemic has brought other changes to the Seamen’s Church. After the Husbys and another couple who helped head the congregation returned to Norway earlier this year, the church suddenly needed a new leader. Berg, who had arrived from Norway in the summer of 2019 to head the sister church in San Francisco, now splits his time between the two locations.

Syhnove Helset and Andreas Helset at Norwegian Seaman's Church gift shop with three people in shirts showing Norway's flag.
Norwegians Syhnove Helset, left, and husband Andreas Helset live in Pasadena, where Andreas attends Caltech. The couple chat with Liv Johansen, center, Catherine Chiaro and Tone Grunwald in the gift shop of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in San Pedro.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The tall, ruddy-cheeked minister was tasked by the church’s headquarters in Bergen, Norway, with surveying where his compatriots live on the West Coast. More than 50 students live in Southern California, 150 attend UC Berkeley, and he is in contact with others across the state, Berg said.

Some college students returned home when the virus shut down in-person classes. Others were left stranded in California because of visa and travel restrictions.

“They have relatives that die, and they can’t go home for their funerals,” said Hans Bratt Hernberg, pastor of the Church of Sweden, which has shared a building with the Seamen’s Church since the late 1950s. “It’s really a mess.”

Norwegian high school students are typically allowed to spend their penultimate year in the country of their choice, but the year abroad was canceled in 2020 because of the novel coronavirus, Chiaro said.

The Church of Sweden held its St. Lucia celebration online this year, a disappointing finale to a somber year for many, Hernberg said.

But there was a bright — and sweet — spot for some Scandinavians on Sunday, when Berolina Bakery in Glendale held a Swedish shopping event. With many Christmas markets closed this year, the event allowed the Swedish community to stock up on traditional goodies for Lucia day, said Youna Karlsson, who runs the bakery with her Swedish husband, Anders.

Standing in line with his wife and two young children, Nico Ahlstrom, 32, seemed grateful for the gustatory lifeline.

“It’s just another tradition that is way different this year around,” Ahlstrom said. “So it’s nice to be able to come here and grab some food and stuff that is familiar to us from back home.”

Hailing from a Swedish-speaking community in Finland, he said he was most looking forward to buying pickled herring, which can be hard to come by in Los Angeles. Then they planned to head to a park for a picnic, in lieu of typical Lucia festivities.

With traffic in the port dwindling to just a handful of Norwegian ships, the church now is a central hub for the roughly 15,000 expatriates living in the greater Los Angeles area, Berg said.

With hopes of the pandemic abating in 2021, amid the widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, a few Norwegian passenger vessels have tentative arrival dates in May. Should those ships sail into the harbor, they’ll be met with an old tradition, the pastor says: blasting the Norwegian national anthem from the church’s loudspeakers.


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