Rev. John F. Nelson
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Age 89, of St. Paul, died peacefully on January 31, 2019.
John began every sermon by saying, “Peace and grace to you from our heavenly father and Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.” To John, God’s grace was the greatest gift. He was a man of deep faith and lived his life devoted to family, friends, and the people he served.
Born Aug. 18, 1929 to Newell “Newt” and Signe (Roe) Nelson, John was baptized, confirmed, married, and ordained at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
John graduated from Central High School in St. Paul in 1947, St. Olaf College in 1951 and married his classmate Nancy Helland in June of 1952. He received his C.TH. from Luther Seminary (1955). His first call was the two-point parish of Spencer and Salem, SD; then he served as Associate Pastor at First Lutheran in Brookings, SD. Moving east, John earned his Masters of Theology at Princeton University (1964).
For the next 34 years, John served at Calvary Lutheran Church in Allendale, New Jersey, during which time he and congregational leaders brought what was a relatively new church to maturity with a growing, thriving congregation, overseeing major church additions, nursery school program, and numerous Family Retreats to Camp Koinonia. As generations came and went, John and Nancy were the heart of the congregation. One of John’s favorite parts of ministry may have been youth work. He personally taught every confirmation class from 1955 to 1997. He devoted countless hours to coordinating All Lutheran Youth Gatherings from 1979 -1988. With parisioners’ and Nancy’s lead, they ran a vibrant Luther League program from 1970 to 1997, organizing experiences that expanded the kids worldviews with multiple exchanges focused on religious jazz service in Manhattan, Harlem youth cooperatives, and working on the social challenges of each decade - examples of Christ with us. Each summer from 1964 to 1985 he looked forward to service as the Youth Camp Pastor for Camp Koinonia leading games, devotions, and songs around campfires and under towering pines.
From the Dakotas to the East Coast districts, in his congregations and on the national Lutheran Church level, John worked to further church missions and engage youth in ministry serving in many local and global church roles including Synod Secretary, Delegate, Chairman, VP, and Secretary of Outreach Boards; Conference and District Executive Committees, and President, NJ/PA Eastern District Council.
He impacted the lives of generations in Allendale in the church and through his work with Koinonia, Eger Nursing Home, YMCA, community and ecumenical governing boards, as chaplain for Allendale Fire Department and Valley Hospital, always looking for new ways to share the gospel and engage people in faith.
After retiring in 1997, John served as interim pastor in Lewistown, Montana where their daughter Julie lives. Ultimately, John and Nancy moved home to Minnesota, settling in Woodbury in a house big enough to host the entire family of 21 and with a pond out back for hockey! John grew up playing hockey with his brothers, Newell Jr. (Bud) and Stanley, in St. Paul and later at St. Olaf (where he was famous for several hat tricks plus one). The brothers grew up next to a hockey rink where they glazed a path to the rink so they could come and go without removing skates and a golf course were they all caddied that established a lifetime of competitive fun with room to be together. He shared his enthusiasm for hockey and golf with his own children and grandchildren and played on a seniors’ team into his 80s.
John truly valued time with family. Road trips in an overpacked Country Squire station wagon were filled with songs, stories and sometimes squabbles from the backseat. John, with Nancy, was a devoted fan of all things grandchildren whether sports games, plays, recitals or gift-wrap sales. John enjoyed a little friendly competition—highly skilled in hockey, golf, and skiing, he equally loved rotation ping pong, a rousing game of charades, or pictionary on family game nights. John cherished his “Roe Family” and their connections to Norway. He and Nancy traveled there twice, where they celebrated their heritage and met Norwegian relatives, establishing lifelong bonds. Their home was always a welcome stopping point for friends and relatives traveling through New York. They also traveled often to visit children in Mexico, Connecticut, Colorado, Alaska, Minnesota and Montana.
John had a kind soul and warm voice and used it well, first as a radio personality “Teen Jack” while still in high school. At home, he told captivating stories. At church, he delivered inspirational sermons. He calmed the bereaved, inspired High-League youth, motivated congregations, led guitar sing-alongs for church and family, and sang lullabies to grandbabies. His unassuming personality and friendly banter won people over and created opportunities for innovation and collaboration. He had a pastor’s heart, a greeting that started with ‘what’s your name’ and continued minutes and often decades later with shared laughter and compassionate reflection.
John is missed by his loving wife of 67 years, Nancy (Helland) Nelson, and his grateful children and grandchildren; Kristen Nelson (Tom Will; Kaila and Thorbjorn) of St. Paul, Gretchen Nelson (John Wolfe Jr.; Rebecca and Avery) of Anchorage, AK, Kathryn Nelson (H.T. Fish; Taryn and Schyler) of St. Paul, Julie Comes (Dean; Madison, Mikayla, and Collin) of Lewistown, MT, and Rev. John D.F. Nelson (Stephanie; Sarah and Tyler) of Bloomington, his sister-in-laws, Lois and Rif, and many nieces, nephews and cousins. Preceded in death by his parents Newell “Newt” and Signe (Roe) Nelson and brothers Newell Jr. (Bud) and Stanley.
We leave John with the words he often said at the close of a service or conversation; “the Lord be with you, John.” We miss you.
Funeral services: Bethlehem Lutheran, 4100 Lyndale So. (Mpls.), Sat. February 16, 11 am. Visitation 10 a.m. Memorials in lieu of flowers are appreciated to Luther Seminary, St. Olaf College, or a spiritual place that gives you joy. Gill Brothers, gillbrothers.com.
If you are unable to attend, the service will be live streamed, Saturday 2/16 at 11 a.m. on the following link: https://www.youtube.com//channel/UCISGwfs_ixOQ1duMRBqX8Wg/live
In honor of John’s love for hockey and for camaraderie on the ice, there will be an informal game of pond hockey Saturday afternoon. Details to follow. Thank you for sharing your love, well wishes, and prayers with us all. The Nelson Children.
Gill Brothers 612-861-6088