Sitting on a hill about six miles south of Whitewater is a small pioneer-era building that has an
interesting history linked to Norwegian settlement in the towns of Whitewater and Richmond.
The little white building along County Highway P is the old Norwegian Methodist Episcopal
Church, built around 1855. The church building is one of the few mostly intact mid-19th century buildings in the area and is undergoing a restoration effort by a few dedicated volunteers led by Georgia Kestol-Bauer, a descendant of one of the earliest members of the church.
In the 1840s, large groups of Norwegian immigrants came to Wisconsin looking for better
economic opportunities. A group of these immigrants who came from the parish of Holla
(Holden) in Telemark, Norway settled in the Towns of Whitewater and Richmond. They
initially joined with other Norwegian immigrant farmers in that area to form the Norwegian
Lutheran Church of Heart Prairie in 1844.
In the mid-1850s, the Heart Prairie congregation began building a brick church on Whitewater
Lake (Town Line Road in the Town of Whitewater). But by this time, the close-knit group from
Holden parish in Norway decided to form their own congregation affiliated with the Methodist
Episcopal Church. A circuit-riding preacher, Rev. Christian Willerup, who had founded a
Norwegian Methodist Episcopal church in Cambridge, organized this new congregation. A
cemetery was established by 1853 and shortly afterward this church was constructed.
Unlike the Heart Prairie Lutheran Church, which affiliated with the First English Lutheran
Church in Whitewater, the old Methodist Episcopal Church eventually lost membership and
except for having an active cemetery, it has not been used as a church since the turn of the
twentieth century. Norwegian descendent Georgia Kestol-Bauer is part of a group that owns the building today.
The old Methodist Episcopal Church was built in the Greek Revival style, popular during the
mid-19th century. The style was influenced by Greek temples and emphasized their columns and pediments (triangle forms). In this building, there is a full pediment on the front wall and a
partial pediment (returned eaves) on the back wall. Narrow pilasters that appear on the corners of the building are very simplified versions of classical columns. Builders from the east coast brought this style with them in the mid-19th century, and the style was popular for many pioneerera churches. But most of these buildings have been lost or extensively remodeled. That this building still exists with its original features is unusual.
Over the years, the unoccupied church building deteriorated, but recently, Kestol-Bauer and her group of volunteers has restored the building to an almost museum-like appearance. The wood shingle roof was replicated, as were the ceiling and floor of the interior. The rest of the historic interior and exterior was saved and refurbished, including the original exterior wood siding and trim and the original plaster and wood wall surfaces in the interior.
In the summer of 2019, the newly restored church went on display to the public with a special
open house. The church is available for rental for special events and is also open to the public on selected days during the year. For more information, contact Georgia Kestol-Bauer at 608-883-2858.
*If using this article, please cite, Carol Lohry Cartwright, “The Norwegian Methodist Episcopal
Church of East Richmond,” 2014, Whitewater Historical Society website, Whitewater, WI.