The Augustana Synod of the Lutheran Church established congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, there were many scattered settlements of Swedish immigrants in Northern California, and the Synod was attempting to gather them into congregations. They referred to this as “the work in the field”, probably referring to the Biblical admonition in Luke 10:2: “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.”
At the same time the synod was harvesting the scattered Swedes, it was also planting new congregations. Sometimes students from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, were sent to California for a year to establish congregations, which were later turned over to ordained pastors. It was not unusual for a student or a pastor to be in charge of two or more parishes at the same time. Pastor John Billdt was called to serve both Emanuel, San Jose, the second-oldest Augustana congregation in the California Conference, and the new congregation of Bethlehem (now First Lutheran) in Palo Alto. The previous pastor, Walter Peterson, had left Bethlehem sometime in the fall of 1923. The November 14, 1923, issue of Vestkusten, the Swedish-language newspaper, noted the shortage of pastors and the temporary assignments made to cover all the congregations. (Note that there were two congregations named Emanuel; one in Bernal Heights, a neighborhood in San Francisco, and one in San Jose.)
“The pastor [Lundquist] has oversight over the work in four congregations, namely Ebenezer; Emanuel, Bernal Heights; the Swedish-Finnish at 25th Street and Florida; along with Bethlehem, Palo Alto. Pastor N. J. Forsberg has taken up the preaching at Bernal Heights; Mr. C. A. A. Rosen in the Swedish-Finnish congregation; and Pastor A. A. Swanlund is preaching in Palo Alto. The first Sunday in December, Pastor J. Billdt from Turlock, will come to take up the work in San Jose and Palo Alto. Emanuel congregation in Bernal Heights and the Swedish-Finnish congregation have sadly been waiting for a pastor for some time.”
Although the records of First Lutheran, Palo Alto, are incomplete for this period, Pastor Billdt’s arrival in December 1923 is confirmed in later reports from Emanuel, San Jose, on the occasion of their 40th anniversary celebration, and in the account of the farewell party for Pastor Billdt in 1929. Both note that he preached his inaugural sermon on the first Sunday in Advent, December 2, 1923. However, Pastor Billdt’s official installation was reported in Vestkusten on February 28, 1924:
“The congregation’s pastor [Lundquist of Ebenezer, San Francisco] took part in the pastor installation in San Jose last Friday, where Pastor John Billdt was ceremoniously installed for his work as pastor of Emanuel Congregation in San Jose, and Bethlehem Congregation in Palo Alto. The undersigned [C. O. Lundquist] gave a talk on the subject, The Mission of a Pastor.”
This delayed installation was possibly caused by the heavy schedule of Pastor Lundquist, who was President of the California Conference, and presumably the installing pastor. John Billdt was born in Sweden on November 20, 1881, in the village of Olingdal, the parish of Lillhärdal. He attended the local schools, then worked as a laborer. In 1902, he enrolled in a military school, in part as a way to get further education. His parents, Jonas Jonasson and Justina Olofsdotter, had migrated to the U. S. in 1903, and in 1905, John joined them in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he worked in the roundhouse of the Union Pacific railroad. In the fall of 1906, he enrolled in Luther Academy in Wahoo, Nebraska, and in the following year felt the call to go into the ministry. His academic life continued as a student in Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas, and the Augustana Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois. During his ten years of educational preparation, he worked to earn his way through school, and he also gained practical experience in teaching and as a student pastor in various congregations.
On June 16, 1916, John Billdt was ordained in Galesburg, Illinois, and married to Hanna Edith Danielson. He accepted a call to the Nazareth-Berea Parish in the California Swedish colonies of Turlock and Hilmar. This dual parish was dissolved in 1920, and he remained as the pastor of the Berea Congregation until 1923, when he was called to another dual parish, that of Emanuel, San Jose, and Bethlehem, Palo Alto. Apparently by 1925, the California Conference decided that the Bethlehem congregation was strong enough to stand on its own, and its dual relationship with Emanuel, San Jose, was terminated. John Billdt resigned from Bethlehem Parish on March 30, 1925, but stayed on as pastor of Emanuel, San Jose, until 1929.
An interesting sidelight was reported in Vestkusten in December of 1924: “Pastor John Billdt of San Jose took the opportunity to celebrate his birthday when the synod’s president, Dr. G. A. Brandelle, visited the city on the 20th of November. Dr. Brandelle presented a sermon, and when the pastor brought the meeting to a close, he was interrupted by Dr. B. who on behalf of the congregation, congratulated him and presented a gift of $125.50. The pastors’ wives were each presented with a bouquet of roses. Then the Women’s Group served refreshments and everyone spent a pleasant evening with the pastor folk.”
During his time in the California Conference, John Billdt’s name often appeared as an officer and board member in the conference, and he was part of the committee that established the Salem Lutheran Elder Home in Oakland. Three of John Billdt’s children were born during the family’s time in Turlock, and three more were born in San Jose. His wife and one daughter died from spinal meningitis in 1932-33, and John married for a second time in 1934 to Ruth Bergin-Engberg. He adopted her two children. John Billdt left California in 1929 to accept a call in Everett, Washington, and in later years filled pulpits in Idaho and Kansas. He died on March 29, 1954, in Lindsborg, Kansas.