FARWELL, Minn. - The Farwell Norwegian Lutheran Church was in bad shape.
Spotted with mold and bat droppings, it was decaying right in the heart of Farwell, population 51 along Highway 55 in northern Pope County.
The once-thriving church had sat vacant for 26 years in the once-thriving town. It had passed from private owner to private owner who, daunted by its enormous needs, passed it along. Its bell tower was leaning and its bell gone.
The first time Ted Irgens laid eyes on it, "My first thought was probably something you're not supposed to think in church," he said.
Irgens, a Twin Cities corporate lawyer, had ties to Farwell - and to the church. His great-grandparents, John and Emma Irgens, had been founding members of Norwegian Lutheran. His grandfather was raised there. He grew up in Alexandria, and on Memorial Day weekends, Irgens would help his dad plant flowers on family graves in Farwell Cemetery.
When he walked into the church in the summer of 2016 with then-owner Jennifer Grueneich, who had bought the church off Craigslist, dismay wasn't his only reaction.
"I was also instantly charmed by the sweet scale and simple design of the building," he said. "And I was pleasantly surprised to see that it retained so many original features."
The church's sconces were still in place, as were a large art-deco fixture and door and window hardware. The altar, pulpit and altar railing had all survived, as had the 1907 "Christ in Gethsemane" painting by Norwegian portrait artist Arne Berger.
Irgens decided to buy it and restore it. His interest in restoration had begun as a boy in Alexandria, growing up in a large 100-year-old home that his parents fixed up. He has restored three older homes in Minneapolis, he said, and he and his wife are working on a "classic old summer cottage" on Lake L'Homme Dieu.
He had never tackled a church before.
Crews did more than restore the church, which was built in 1907. They added outlets, dug a well, installed plumbing and air conditioning. For the first time ever, it has a bathroom. Artist Gloria Pfeifer spent three weeks restoring stencils along the top of the walls and ceiling, starting with sifting through countless color samples to find just the right one. Then she nervously climbed high scaffolding to paint each stencil by hand. There were well over 100.
Meanwhile, passers-by have been peeking in from time to time, checking the progress.
"People are so excited," Pfeifer said.
Farwell once boasted two grocery stores, one with a cafe. It had a bar and pool hall, a hardware store and a couple of banks. All that is gone now, except for an elevator, a community post office and a tire business. Many old buildings were torn down, though some remain.
Some of those are also in line for restoration. Irgens plans to restore an old mechanic's shop kitty-corner from the church. One of the church's previous owners, Eldora Husfeldt, bought the old post office with her husband and plans to fix it up for storage.
Irgens said he hopes the projects will spur other activity, such as restoring the city's stately but aging Victorian homes and attracting artists and art events.
Some work remains on the church. In its bell tower, Irgens plans to install a 400-pound bell bought at a Pope County Museum auction. The church's original bell was set in its cemetery, minus its clapper.
Husfeldt, who grew up behind her grandfather's harness shop in Farwell, said she misses the sound of church bells.
She has enjoyed the evenings this winter when the church has blazed with light.
"Wow, it looks so neat," she said. "It looks like, Farwell, there's something going on here."
Irgens has invited the community to visit Farwell Norwegian Lutheran during its open house from 1-4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16. There'll be Christmas music on a donated grand piano, and the church is decorated for the season. Artists and crafters will sell items in the downstairs fellowship hall, and visitors may contribute to Toys for Tots. Farwell is about 20 miles southwest of Alexandria.
Visitors are invited to provide input on possible uses for the church.