CLARENCE ELMER CARLSTROM, 1936-1945
As First Lutheran Church approached its 20th anniversary in 1940, the congregation had matured. One of the reasons was the nine-year tenure of Clarence Carlstrom, who up to that time was the longest-serving pastor.
The early life of Clarence Carlstrom followed the pattern of many young men who were immigrants or the sons of immigrants. He went to school until confirmation at about age 15. Any further education was obtained piece-meal, for he had to work to support himself. Although most seminarians at the time were single men, a few like Carlstrom who came into the ministry at an older age were married. By the time Pastor Carlstrom was ordained, he was also the father of a young son. It’s worth noting the importance of a sympathetic, energetic, and supportive wife for these young men. Life was not easy financially, and the husbands had unending concerns and responsibilities for a whole congregation of people, not just their own families.
Clarence Elmer Carlstrom was born on June 2, 1897, in Gowrie, Iowa. He was the son of Victor Carlstrom who was born in Östergötland, Sweden, and Beda Elizabeth Anderson who was born in Västergötland, Sweden. Both parents had migrated to the United State as single young adults and they married in 1892. Both parents were faithful to the worship and work of the church, and their six surviving children were baptized and confirmed in the Gowrie Church.
After confirmation, Clarence attended Fort Dodge Business College for two winter terms, and worked as a farm hand in several mid-western states. He had remained active in the Luther League, and in 1921, he felt the call to the ministry after attending a youth conference at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.
He was a student at the Augustana Academy for two years, spending the summer of 1923 serving the church at Mora, Minnesota. He completed his secondary education at Minnesota College in 1924 and earned his A.B. degree from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1927.
After one year at the seminary in Rock Island, Carlstrom served the Eden congregation in Riverside, California, for a year. That was where he met his wife, Elsie Youngren, who was a singer at the Mission Inn in Riverside. They were married on December 12, 1928. Here is the account of their wedding from the Swedish-language newspaper, Vestkusten: Pacific Coast. A grand wedding in Riverside for the pastor at Eden Church, Clarence Carlstrom and Miss Elsie Youngren, Riverside. The marriage rite was conducted in the beautifully decorated Mission Inn by Pastor Paul V. Randolf of Long Beach in the presence of a large number of relatives and friends of the bride and groom. Clarence Carlstrom holds the position of pastor of Eden Church in Riverside. Next fall he will be studying again in Augustana College for two years, after which his ordination will occur. The bride is well known in Southern California. As a singer, she has acquired a notable name and among other occasions she sang for Sweden’s Crown Prince and Crown Princess during their visit to the Mission Inn in Riverside a couple of years ago.
Riverside had been Elsie Youngren’s hometown since age 15 when she moved there from Iowa with her guardians, her aunt and uncle, with whom she had lived and who she had regarded as father and mother since age 1 1⁄2. They encouraged her in her love of music, and in 1924 she had studied voice in Munich, Germany.
In 1929, Clarence Carlstrom returned to Rock Island, Illinois, to complete his seminary training, and was ordained in 1931 in Jamestown, New York, at the age of 34. His first call was to Palm Valley Church in Round Rock, Texas. He was the last pastor there who was able to preach in Swedish. In 1935, the Carlstroms returned to California where Pastor Carlstrom took a position with the Havenscourt congregation in Oakland. By this time, the family included three sons, Gerard Marcus, born in 1929, John Philip, born in 1932, and Theodore Clarence, born in 1933.
On September 1, 1936, First Lutheran Church extended a call to Pastor Clarence Carlstrom to be their permanent pastor. He accepted the call and preached his inaugural sermon on November 8, 1936. Pastor Carlstrom kept detailed records of his work, and the minutes of the congregational meetings during his tenure are extensive. From this trove of information, we can see how the congregation grew.
At the same time First Lutheran was growing, it’s important to remember that Pastor Carlstrom’s pastorate occurred during a time of rapid societal change in the United States. During the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression, the value of a dollar deflated. This effect is mirrored in the salaries paid to pastors. In 1930 at the time of the congregation’s 10th anniversary, the pastor’s salary was $2400 per year. However, $1000 of that was contributed by the California Conference from a mission fund that subsidized start-up congregations. In contrast, by 1936 Pastor Carlstrom was paid $1800 per year at the beginning of his pastorate. This was contributed entirely by the congregation. As the Great Depression ended and the rate of inflation began to increase sharply, Pastor Carlstrom’s salary was raised each year and by 1945, he was earning $2640 per year.
When the church building was built in 1925, the congregation had borrowed $6000 from a bank, and an additional $1500 from the California Conference. When the building was completed and furnished, the whole property (including the land) was valued at $26,000. Throughout the 1930s, various schemes for debt reduction were tried with little success. When he accepted the call to First Lutheran, Pastor Carlstrom was charged with eliminating the debt which which by then had gradually been reduced to $3800. On November 21,1943, the mortgage was finally paid off and a mortgage-burning ceremony was held.
In addition to eliminating the debt, Pastor Carlstrom oversaw other improvements to the church. A major part of the 20th anniversary celebration in August 1940 was the dedication of the pews that replaced folding chairs. The pews were equipped with hymn racks, and hat racks that were attached to the undersides of the pews. Men all wore felt fedora-style hats at the time, and it was proper to take them off when entering a building, especially a church.
A pipe organ replaced the old two-manual reed organ. A piano was obtained for the Annex. The Sunday School “booths” in the Annex were curtained off and lighted. Dining tables were acquired (possibly the hand-made wooden tables which are still in use in 2020). Ladies’ Aid contributed a pulpit chair. A telephone was installed in the Pastor’s study. There were many other small gifts. Several maintenance and repair tasks were carried out. Most of these gifts and improvements were financed by one of the organizations within the congregation rather than being paid out of the general fund, although one of the Boards probably made suggestions about what was needed.
The list of standing committees, organizations, and groups included: the Board of Deacons, the Board of Trustees (finance and property), Women’s Missionary Society, The Dorcas Society (for younger women), Ladies’ Aid, Lutheran Brotherhood, a basketball program directed by Lutheran Brotherhood, Luther League, Sunday School, Confirmation Class, and Choir. During Pastor Carlstrom’s pastorate the following were added: Altar Guild composed of Deacon’s wives and daughters, Boy Scout Pack #48, summer Vacation Bible School. The women of the congregation also volunteered at the Lutheran Service Center in San Francisco, a social and support center for men in the military. Mrs. Carlstrom started and directed a Boys’ Choir, a Girls’ Choir, and started Cub Scout Pack #12. It’s also likely that she suggested the formation of a music committee.
In addition to her activity within the congregation, Elsie Carlstrom managed the home the Carlstroms had purchased at 459 Channing (which is still in the family) and raised the three young Carlstrom boys. Mrs. Carlstrom also maintained her musical career by periodically returning to Riverside to sing at the Mission Inn. Her name is frequently mentioned as a soloist at First Lutheran, and at district church meetings, festivals, and concerts.
Pastor Carlstrom kept a record of the calls he made each week, both to households and businesses. During his first full year at First Lutheran, he made 388 calls. (He was careful to note in his annual report that the number did not include calls where no one was at home.) By 1945, his call tally had doubled to 860.
We have less detailed information about the growth in membership. A large number of new members was recorded in the minutes of the congregational meetings, but it’s not clear if the numbers included all souls, or just communicants. The average attendance numbers for the Sunday service may be a more accurate measure of growth; these increased only slightly, hovering on either side of 100. The biggest increase in membership seems to have been in the Sunday School. By the mid-1940s, the superintendent of the Sunday School complained about the lack of space and the difficulty in getting competent teachers for over 50 Sunday School children, crammed into the Annex or Fellowship Hall. The educational wing would not be built until 1952.
In addition to the many calls he made, Pastor Carlstrom publicized the congregation with detailed weekly notices in the Palo Alto Times and frequent notices in the Swedish-language newspaper, Vestkusten. He also preached a few times a year on the Lutheran Brotherhood Hour, broadcast each Sunday afternoon on radio station KRE in Berkeley.
Among his many activities outside First Lutheran, Pastor Clarence Carlstrom was active as a speaker and officer at District and Conference assemblies as well as at Luther League, Y.M.C.A, and Brotherhood events. He helped to organize a Sunday School Institute for the District, was president of the Palo Alto Ministerial Association for a year, and served as a chaplain to the Boy Scout organization. He took his turn in the rota of offices in the Northern California District, and for two years was a member of the executive board of the California Conference.
In 1945, Pastor Carlstrom received a call to the Service Commission of the National Lutheran Council. In this position, he served as a civilian chaplain to members of the military and administered the Service Center in Fresno. His last Sunday at First Lutheran was Easter, April 1. After two years in Fresno and Waukegan, Illinois, he accepted the call to establish a new church in Antioch, California. St. John Lutheran in Antioch was dedicated five years later.
On January 17, 1955, Clarence Carlstrom died suddenly of a heart attack at age 57. His family returned to Palo Alto. His son, Theodore or “Ted”, who is still a member of First Lutheran, was generous in supplying additional information and verifying this account of his father.