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Bethesda invites community to celebrate 125 years of continuous care in west central Minnesota

Bethesda, which has provided elder care in Willmar for decades, is celebrating its 125th anniversary on Sunday. The entire community is invited to an afternoon of fun, fellowship and history.

Bethesda Grand digital sign
Bethesda is celebrating 125 years in 2022. The yearlong commemoration is culminating with the Bethesda Legacy Day celebration on Sunday at Bethesda Grand in Willmar.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — Bethesda is on a mission. And for 125 years, the independent, nonprofit, faith-based organization has dedicated itself to serving others and providing care to residents of west central Minnesota.

Bethesda CEO Michelle Haefer and CDO Caroline Chan
Bethesda CEO Michelle Haefner, left, and Chief Development Officer Caroline Chan
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

On Sunday, Sept. 25, Bethesda will be celebrating that legacy with a day of family-friendly fun, and the entire community is invited. It will be a day to not only look back on decades of faith-forward care but also to look forward to a bright future where the needs of its community remain paramount.

"The desire to serve others is how Bethesda started and how it continues today," said Michelle Haefner, chief executive officer.

A history of service and care

From its earliest days, Bethesda has been known to provide the best care to its residents, even when those residents were considerably younger than they are today.

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"Bethesda started as an orphanage," said Caroline Chan, chief development officer. "One pastor took in three children and invited his community to be part of that. That is where our grassroots story began."

In 1897, the Lutheran Orphan Asylum of Lamberton was founded and would open in 1898 with a capacity of 24 children. Eight years later, the orphanage was in need of more space and eyes turned to available land near Willmar.

With the help of Calvary Lutheran and Eagle Lake Lutheran in Willmar and St. John's Lutheran Church of Pennock, 163 acres of land was purchased about five miles north of Willmar and a new home was built to house up to 50 children in 1905. The organization at that time also changed its name to Bethesda Home.

In 1905, Bethesda also started to sow the seeds of its future, when the children's home opened its doors to two elderly gentlemen who needed care. For another 34 years, Bethesda Home would provide care to both children and seniors at the farm.

"They had two separate buildings on the same farm site," Chan said.

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The story of Bethesda took a major turn in 1939. Orphan care began to change in Minnesota, while the need for senior services continued to grow. The Bethesda board decided to close the orphanage on June 27, 1939.

The remaining nine children were adopted by the last matron of the orphanage, and Bethesda started to focus on the future of its senior care home.

Bethesda Home would continue to operate on the farm site and would be joined by Bethesda Heritage Center near Calvary Lutheran Church in Willmar in 1953. The two senior living facilities would provide a home for seniors well into the 1970s. The Home would finally be closed when Pleasant View Nursing Home was opened on Willmar Avenue.

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"In 1979, we moved to where we are sitting today," Chan said. "We've really grown our footprint."

Residents of the former Bethesda Heritage
Residents of the former Bethesda Heritage Center participate in a parade Sept. 13, 2016, down 11th Avenue Southeast in Willmar to celebrate their move to Bethesda Grand, a new state-of-the-art facility on Willmar Avenue. The project brought Pleasant View Nursing Home and Bethesda Heritage together under one roof.
Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune file photo

One of the hallmarks of Bethesda throughout its history is providing the best care and facilities for its residents. Bethesda Heritage was one of the first fireproof nursing homes in the state, Chan said. And that focus continues into the present day.

The organization would continue to expand its senior living options with the opening of Terrace Homes in 1987, Sunrise Village in 1992 and Centennial Square in 1997, and even expanded outside of Willmar with the opening of Park View Village in Olivia in 2002.

In 2016, Heritage Center and Pleasant View were combined into one state-of-the-art facility on Willmar Avenue. The expansion continued with the opening of North Pointe in New London in 2021.

"We are always keeping that forward focus," Chan said.

As an independent organization, governed by a board of regional church leaders, Bethesda is able to pivot to address the changing needs of its community through projects and programs.

"All of our decisions are based on what our area needs," Haefner said.

In addition to senior living facilities, Bethesda continually updates the other senior care programs it offers. The Wellness Center with the Club Bethesda fitness center opened in 2010, followed by the warm water therapy pool in 2011. The Bethesda Club Suites provide short-term rehabilitation housing and services.

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In the past few years Bethesda completed a major remodel of its entrance and lobby area, including renovations of its chapel and cafe.

Wellness center
The heated pool in the Bethesda Wellness Center provides opportunities for both water exercise and therapy. It was opened in 2011.
Ron Adams / West Central Tribune file photo

The staff over the decades has also played a very important part in the success of Bethesda, dating all the way back to those caring for the orphans in the late 1890s. Some employees have worked for Bethesda for decades, bringing a stability that can be hard to find in senior care and health care.

"We wouldn't be able to do that without the hands that choose to serve our mission each day," Chan said. "It is incredible to be a part of that."

And without the surrounding community, both from the pews of member churches and from neighborhood residents, Bethesda would be missing one of its greatest strengths. From the very beginning the community has been a lead actor in Bethesda's story. The community will continue to be important to Bethesda as it goes forward, Chan said.

"It is not Bethesda doing things for the community," Chan said. "It is the community doing things through Bethesda."

Bethesda Grand.JPG
Bethesda's Heritage Center and Pleasant View facilities were combined into one state-of-the-art facility on Willmar Avenue — Bethesda Grand.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

A celebration 125 years in the making

It is the relationship between Bethesda and its community that will be at center stage during the Bethesda Legacy Day celebration on Sunday.

"It will be a big celebration for us," Chan said.

The day will begin at 11 a.m. with an outdoor worship service, led by Pastor Mary Hovland and Chaplain Grant Hoekstra. Following the service will be a community luncheon. There will also be bouncy houses on hand to keep the kids entertained.

"People want to do things with their grandkids, see their grandkids and hear them laugh and smile," Chan said.

Display cases full of artifacts from Bethesda's 125 years of history
Bethesda will be displaying decades worth of artifacts and photos at its Legacy Day celebration on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

At 1:30 p.m., the Legacy Day program will begin. The history of Bethesda will be shared and a group photo will be taken. The celebration will also take a look into the future, Haefner and Chan said, and the organization will announce future plans and projects at that time.

"Bethesda has always been a forward-thinking organization, meeting the needs of our communities," and the announcements will continue that, Haefner said.

The celebration will continue with a pie auction and social at 2:30 p.m. followed by rousing games of community bingo to finish the day. Throughout the day there will also be the history walking path for visitors to peruse at their own pace. They'll be able to take a closer look at artifacts, photos and timelines from throughout Bethesda's 125 years.

Marcia Anderson, left, reads a card to Margaret Anderson, center, as Marcia and her nephew Matt Anderson, right, show Margaret her new home Tuesday at Bethesda Grand in Willmar. The Andersons had chocolate and flowers waiting for Margaret when she got to her new home at the single Bethesda campus along Willmar Avenue Southeast. Briana Sanchez / Tribune
For more than 100 years, Bethesda has provided housing, services and programming for the Willmar region's senior citizens. Before transitioning to offer senior care full time in 1939, Bethesda operated as an orphanage, caring for children who had no else to care for them.
Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune file photo

All of the activities will take place outside in the back parking lot of Bethesda at 901 Willmar Avenue Southeast. Parking will be available at the Willmar Middle School with a shuttle busing people to and from the event. While there are no COVID-19 restrictions in place for the outside activities, anyone entering Bethesda will need to follow pandemic protocols, including wearing a mask.

The entire community is invited to attend the celebration, whether they have family members living at Bethesda or not. Both Chan and Haefner said residents are excited for the event, and Bethesda can't wait to welcome their neighbors for a day of celebration.

"After the last few years, it is time to do some celebrating together," Chan said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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