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Dave Olson, Published December 19 2013

West Fargo churches ending ecumenical experiment

WEST FARGO – It was an experiment born from the ecumenical movement of the 1970s, a time when Christian denominations placed a focus on shared values as opposed to their differences.

In West Fargo in the early 1980s, two churches sprang up side by side – the Lutheran Church of the Cross and Holy Cross Catholic Church.

At first, the connection between them was a sidewalk.

Over time, the sidewalk became an enclosure, which became a meeting space and the shared front door to both churches.

The physical connection was reinforced by mutual activities and the two churches wound up sharing a youth director.

In recent years, however, the growing congregations drifted from their collaborative course and Thursday the distance between them became clear when the Church of the Cross closed a deal to buy Holy Cross, which is moving its congregation to another spot in West Fargo where a new church and Catholic elementary school are planned.

The churches shared a youth director as recently as eight years ago, but since then ties have loosened as the Catholic Church’s emphasis on ecumenical efforts began to wane, said the Rev. Bill Thompson, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Cross.

“I don’t mean that as a negative; it’s just a reality,” said Thompson, ascribing the change to decisions made by the Fargo Catholic Diocese and its former bishop, the Rev. Samuel Aquila, who is now archbishop of Denver.

Thompson said the congregation at the Church of the Cross has grown from about 175 active members in 1996, when he became pastor, to about 1,700 members today.

As for Holy Cross, Thompson said the congregation grew from about 1,100 members in the mid-1990s to about 4,000 members today.

He said before this week’s purchase of Holy Cross, both churches had contemplated a joint expansion project.

With the deal sealed, officials at the Lutheran church said space in what is now the Catholic church will eventually be used by the Church of the Cross for things like youth education.

Holy Cross plans to use its current space until it can move to a new location in a neighborhood just south of the Costco on Veterans Boulevard in West Fargo.

The move is expected to take place in the summer of 2015, said the Rev. James Meyer of Holy Cross.

Meyer said the new church facilities will be connected to a new school that will be available to preschoolers ages 3 to 4 and students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

“The school hopefully will open its doors in the fall of 2015,” Meyer said.

Asked whether the ecumenical experiment had been of value to the churches, Meyer said the ecumenical experiment undoubtedly had been of value to the churches, but he added it was a question best answered by church members themselves.

Meyer and Thompson said mixed-faith families appreciated the arrangement. Meyer added that of the more than 100 mixed faith families, four indicated the sale of Holy Cross would mean they would be attending church elsewhere.

Thompson called the 30-year connection between the two churches a rarity.

“This facility is only one of three in the entire world where you have congregations that have come together in a unique proximity … with a joint focus on ministry for the future recognizing there are differences, but also that we have a lot of common ground to build on,” Thompson said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555