Memorial for Former ELCA Presiding Bishop Herbert Chilstrom

The first-ever presiding bishop of the ELCA, Rev. Dr. Herbert Chilstrom, passed away Jan. 19. A memorial service takes place on Sat., Feb. 15.
Posted on January 31st, 2020 by

Rev. Dr. Herbert Chilstrom passed away on Jan. 19 at the age of 88.

Rev. Dr. Herbert Chilstrom passed away on Jan. 19 at the age of 88.

Rev. Dr. Herbert Chilstrom, the first-ever presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), passed away at his home in Green Valley, Ariz. on January 19, 2020. Chilstrom, a longtime resident of Saint Peter, Minn., will be celebrated with a memorial service in Gustavus Adolphus College’s Christ Chapel at 1 p.m. on Saturday, February 15, 2020. 

Rev. Dr. Herbert Chilstrom, the first presiding bishop of the ELCA.

Rev. Dr. Herbert Chilstrom, the first presiding bishop of the ELCA.

Chilstrom was born in Litchfield, Minn. on October 18, 1931 and completed his undergraduate education at Augsburg College in Minneapolis before attending the Augustana Theological Seminary. He earned a master’s in theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary and a doctorate of education from New York University. After serving as pastor at two Minnesota churches in Pelican Rapids and Elizabeth, and as a professor and administrator at Luther College in Teaneck, NJ., he moved to Saint Peter in 1970 after being called as the senior pastor at First Lutheran Church. In 1976, he was elected bishop of the Minnesota Synod of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). Following the churchwide merger in 1987, Chilstrom was elected the first presiding bishop of the newly-formed 5.2 million-member ELCA.

“Many of you knew him in those early days when the ELCA was just getting started – there was no furniture at the Lutheran Center, files were in boxes, phones were on the floor, and the skeleton staff worked on card tables and folding chairs. He was once told by a corporate executive sitting next to him on a plane that this was no way to start a corporation and it would never work. Thirty-three years later we are still here, entrusted with the ministry of the gospel and serving the neighbor,” said Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA.

Chilstrom served the ELCA in his inaugural role until 1995, when he and his wife, Corinne, retired to their home on Lake Lida near Pelican Rapids for several years and then returned to Saint Peter. He was an active volunteer in the Saint Peter community and at Gustavus, serving as the interim director of the Linnaeus Arboretum and later as a gardener tending the flowerbeds that cover the Arboretum’s 150 acres of prairies, forests, and manicured areas. For many years they spent the colder months in Green Valley, Ariz., and lived there full-time during the past few years.

“The Gustavus community joins together with our partners at the ELCA and Lutherans across the country in mourning the loss of Rev. Dr. Chilstrom,” Gustavus President Rebecca M. Bergman said. “He lived his life with a deep humility and sense of compassion that compelled him to share God’s love with everyone equally. Whether dining with world leaders or teaching inquisitive schoolchildren in the Linnaeus Arboretum, Herb was a kind, gentle, and thoughtful man.” 

Chilstrom, who was 88 years old, is survived by his wife of 65 years, Corinne (Hansen), also a Lutheran pastor; a daughter, Mary Cress of Mesa, Ariz.; a son, Christopher Holt of Baltimore; and four sisters, Winnifred Christenson of Robbinsdale, Minn.; Virginia Francis of Pickens, S.C.; Martha (Charles) Anderson of Ashby, Minn.; and Janet (Frederick) Sickert of West Linn, Ore. He was preceded in death by his son Andrew; brother, David; and sisters Adeline Christenson (Earle) and Lorraine Juul (Dick).

A service will be held in Arizona at Desert Hills Lutheran Church in Green Valley on Thursday, Feb. 13 at 2 p.m.

The Minnesota service will be held in Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College on Saturday, Feb. 15 at 1 p.m. Bishop Eaton will preside, former presiding bishop Mark Hanson will preach, bishop of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod and Gustavus Board of Trustees member Rev. Jon Anderson will provide a greeting, and Gustavus chaplain Rev. Siri Erickson will host. The service will be livestreamed online via Stretch Internet and YouTube for those who are unable to attend in person. The memorial service program is available online.

Clergy and rostered leaders of the ELCA, together with clergy of the ELCA’s ecumenical partners, are invited to robe and process at the Gustavus service and are asked to RSVP online. The vestments color of the day will be green.

Notice about parking:

On Saturday, February 15, parking on campus may exceed capacity due to the high number of guests anticipated both for the Herb Chilstrom Memorial Service and campus admission and athletic events. Parking attendants will be present from 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. to assist visitors in finding an available parking spot. This may necessitate going off-campus to overflow parking and taking a shuttle to campus. Drop-off locations are available by Christ Chapel, the Jackson Campus Center, and Lund Center. Please allow extra time either to walk a significant distance across campus to reach your destination or park in remote overflow parking and shuttle to campus.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


One Comment

  1. The Rev. Charley Lopez says:

    Thanks be to God for my friend and colleaue, Bishop Herb Chilstrom. We served on the Board of Directors at Luther Seminary 1984-1994 and we first met in New Jersey when I was a parish pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Rockaway. “Eternal rest grant him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on him.”