CARL BERTRAM SWANSON, 1894–1959

Founder of First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto, California

First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto, California, was established in the summer of 1920 by undergraduate student, Bertram Swanson. It seems unusual for a student to be given the responsibility for gathering a congregation, since students are normally in their early 20s and have not had a lot of life experience. But the biography of Bertram Swanson reveals that he was older than the usual student and had had adult responsibilities since he was in his mid-teens.

Carl Bertram Swanson was born August 25, 1894 in Drammen, Norway, the son of Anna Maria, born Högberg, and Peter J. Swanson. Both parents were born in Värmland, Sweden. Bertram was baptized in Bragernes Church, Drammen, and attend first grade in Norway. In 1901, he emigrated to America with his family, and continued his education in Chicago public schools. He was confirmed in 1909 in Lebanon Church, Chicago.

After confirmation it was time to go to work. The teen-age Bertram held jobs as an office boy, a time keeper, bookkeeper, photographer, editor of a shop paper, a purchasing agent for a large company, and an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad in their freight office. But he had been inspired by Rev. Walter E. Pearson, who had served as a student pastor in Bertram’s home church, Lebanon in Chicago. In autobiographical data submitted later in life to the Augustana Synod, Bertram wrote: “My interest in the ministry was awakened by the late Rev. Walter E. Pearson who served as a student pastor in Lebanon Church, Chicago. It was his encouragement and kindly touch that awakened in me the feel and the call to give my life to the Lord’s Work. He was my inspiration and spiritual father.”

In 1916, at the age of 21, Bertram resumed his education by entering high school in Willmar, Minnesota, and graduated after two and half years. In 1918 he served for seven months in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army during World War I. Then, in 1919, he entered Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

A brief notice in the Swedish-language newspaper, Vestkusten, dated 19 August 1920, mentions that students Friedstrom, Friedlund, Johnson and Swanson, along with Miss Widing presented a program to the men’s group at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in San Francisco, the headquarters of the California Conference of the Augustana Synod. It also mentions that student Carl Okerblom from Augustana College had arrived the previous week to join students Friedström, Johnson, Friedlund and Swanson with their studies at the state university in Berkeley, and at the same time take part as much as possible in the work of the church. It appears that promising students from Rock Island were sent to San Francisco to help the California Conference establish new congregations. There were enough Swedish immigrants in the Bay Area to make the formation of Swedish Lutheran congregations a logical goal. Students Friedstrom, Friedlund, and Swanson were all involved in the early days at First Lutheran.

On the same date, a brief announcement appeared in the Palo Alto Times. “The Swedish people of Palo Alto are asked to meet at 8 o’clock tomorrow evening in the Christian Church for the purpose of forming a Swedish Lutheran church. The Rev. C. O. Lundquist of San Francisco will be in charge of the meeting.”

On August 21, 1920, the Palo Alto Times headlined an article: LUTHERANS OF THIS CITY ORGANIZE. Forty-One Members Sign the Charter Roll: Hold Services in Swedish. “A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church was organized in Palo Alto last night at a meeting of the Swedish people of the community held in the Memorial Christian Church where the Lutherans will hold their regular services until other arrangements are made.”

“C. B. Swanson, theological student of Berkeley, who is acting pastor of the Lutheran Church in San Jose, will be pastor of the local church, conducting services in San Jose on Sunday mornings and in Palo Alto on Sunday afternoons, the Sunday School hour being 2:30 and the preaching hour at 3:30.”

The account continues. “Owing to the preponderance of Swedish speaking people in the congregation, who understand English but partially, the sermons are delivered in the Swedish language. It is the pastor’s expectation, however, to have services in English also when the membership gains sufficiently in English speaking people.”

The Augustana College library holds a collection of biographical data submitted on forms by the pastors themselves. In 1949, Carl Bertram Swanson wrote: “After seven months of service [in the Army], I enrolled at Augustana College [1919]. I spent one year at college when I was sent to Palo Alto, California, to organize a church and attended the University of California at the same time. [1920] I returned to Augustana College and graduated in 1922. Attended seminary and graduated in 1925 with a B.D. degree.”

In another paragraph, he elaborated: “As a student in the College, I received an appointment to Palo Alto, California. We had no work there. I surveyed the field and enlisted 44 charter members for the organization of the church. The church was organized under the direction of Dr. C. O. Lundquist, then of San Francisco. [Pastor of Ebenezer Lutheran Church.] I spent one year on the field, working there one whole summer and then week-ends while attending the University of California in Berkeley.”

In 1920, there were no automobile bridges across San Francisco Bay. So Bertram Swanson probably traveled from Berkeley to the Peninsula by taking a trolly to Oakland, the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco, then transferring to the Southern Pacific Railroad from San Francisco to San Jose for the the morning service, and back to Palo Alto for the afternoon service.

In his report for the first congregational meeting of Bethlehem Lutheran, 11 January 1921, (typewritten in Swedish,) Student Swanson summarized what had happened in the first five months of the new congregation: “On 20 August 1920, 43 people signed the charter, and six more signed shortly after for a total of 49 charter members. Worship services have been held every Sunday afternoon in the Memorial Christian Church on the corner of Bryant and Channing Streets. October 17 was a big day when the congregation met and celebrated communion for the first time. Pastor C. O. Lundquist, the vice-pastor, presided at the service. At this service four children were baptized and the congregational officers were installed.

“The Women’s Group first met on the 15th of July at the home of Mrs. John Lyons, and since then has met at other houses each month. The membership now stands at 29 members and we hope that will increase. The women have done well. On 19 November they held a sale and it was a big success. They must not tire in this important work. God will provide.

“The Sunday School has gone forth beyond expectation. At first I though it was not worth having Sunday School for so few children. But I was wrong. Although the beginning was so small, I always hoped it would grow, and so it has this fall. The Sunday School now has 39 children, and we hope for more in the future. The Sunday School presented a remarkable program at their Christmas Festival. May God bless this branch of the congregation.

“To all the members and friends in Palo Alto and Mayfield who have given me their support and their love, I want to give my heartiest thanks. Thanks too for good work and may the Lord help us so that our work together here may go forward for the building of the kingdom and the salvation of souls.”

In the summer of 1921, Bertram Swanson returned to Augustana College, graduated in 1922, entered seminary, and graduated in 1925 at the age of 30. He was ordained in Minneapolis, married Vendla E. Person the same summer, and accepted a call to Zion Lutheran, Newman Grove, Nebraska. Subsequent calls took the family to Bethlehem Lutheran in Elgin, Illinois; Elim Lutheran in Fargo, North Dakota; and Augustana Inner Mission, Chicago, where Pastor Swanson became the executive director. At the end of his life, he served as associate pastor of First Church, New Britain, Connecticut.

Pastor Swanson visited the Bay Area several times, and in 1940, participated in the 20th anniversary of the congregation he had established, by then called First Lutheran.

Carl Bertram Swanson died on 12 August 1959 in Chicago while on vacation. He was survived by his wife, Vendla, and three children: Carl B. Swanson, Jr., Minister of Music; Mrs. Betty Hill; and Pastor Theodore N. Swanson.

by Jill Knuth