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Faith Lutheran pastor returns after 40 years

Pastor Tom Bunnett will fill in for Pastor Dan Doran for the summer

Posted: Friday, June 04, 2004

On June 4, 1964, Pastor Tom Bunnett led a dedication ceremony of Faith Lutheran Church's sanctuary, fellowship hall, educational wing and parsonage.

Now, 40 years later, Bunnett has returned to the Mendenhall Valley church to serve as pastor for the summer. He and his wife, Thekla, arrived here from San Diego, Calif., on May 26.

"Funny enough, we're picking up where we left off," Thekla said with a warm smile.

The church, at 2500 Sunset Drive, offers services to about 30 families at 9 a.m. Sundays. Pastor Dan Doran is out of town on personal business and will return at the end of the summer.

The Bunnetts first arrived in Juneau on Sept. 6, 1962, and were greeted by 17 hopeful congregants who had waited a long time for that special day, Tom Bunnett said. It marked the first assignment for Tom after graduating from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo.

The scene also reflected that of many mission congregations that began in Alaska: often small, dedicated groups finding support within a larger denomination and finally evolving into self-supporting congregations, he said. Faith Lutheran, part of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod - was one such group.

Bunnett was not the first pastor, but was the first to lead the congregation as an organized group with a permanent place of worship.

The congregation was first loosely shepherded in 1954 by a pastor who began work on Douglas Island. After four years, he was recalled to Washington while the fledgling group was served by different pastors from Seattle. They would fly to Juneau once a month to conduct a communion service in a member's home.

Ultimately, the denomination's Mission Board in Portland, Ore., purchased 10 acres of land, and Bunnett was called from the seminary to serve what was called the "Juneau/Mendenhaven" development. The Bunnetts were in Juneau until 1967 before being relocated to Fort Richardson in Anchorage.

They remembered their early Juneau experiences vividly and shared fun memories with friends and fellow parishioners around the dining room table at the parsonage on Wednesday.

"It must be a lot of fun for them because they were here when they were newly married," longtime parishioner Marilyn Clark said.

Thekla (pronounced Take-la) recalls getting off the airplane in fashionable dress from her hometown of Bremen, Germany, to be greeted by Alaskans wearing checkered mackinaws, flannel shirts, heavy jackets and rubber boots. Then the Bunnetts were led to an efficiency apartment downtown that sported green walls, a pink kitchen and a wall bed.

Tom recalls closing the apartment door and his wife, standing in tears, saying she did not want to live there and would not live there.

They stayed. And Thekla adapted quickly.

Within a week, she volunteered to help Alaskans United lobby to keep the capital in Juneau.

That fall Tom performed his first marriage ceremony, for Sandra and Karl Mielke, on Oct. 27, 1963.

"I used to worry about my batting averages with marriages, but theirs is living proof," Bunnett said pointing to Karl, president of the congregation.

The Mielkes were not supposed to be his first marriage. A groom-to-be that worked as a bush pilot crashed an airplane the day before the wedding. His bride was going to wear Thekla's wedding dress.

Meanwhile, Tom was traveling to Hoonah once a month to offer services to about half a dozen families. The Bunnetts purchased a painting of Hoonah by good friend and Juneau artist Sharron Lobaugh. They have the painting hanging in their dining room, and Thekla plans to join Lobaugh at her art show today at the Baranof Hotel.

Sue Davis now attends Chapel by the Lake on the University of Alaska Southeast campus, but was a parishioner at Faith Lutheran for years and is good friends with the Bunnetts.

She recalled the time Pastor Bunnett called at her home one day, and her son, Ryan, remarked, "God's here, God's here."

"I hear the things that are being said and I think, 'My gosh,' " Bunnett said, putting his hands over his heart.

"See, you just had a motivating force," Davis said, tapping Bunnett's right shoulder.

The Bunnetts leave at the end of August, but memories of their second mission in Juneau likely will remain.

"In man's futile claim of immortality, he looks for something permanent in what he's done," Karl Mielke said. "It's gratifying to see that some of the seeds he's sewn demonstrate longevity."

• Tara Sidor can be reached at tara.sidor@juneauempire.com



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