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A Norwegian church in San Pedro honors a saint who brings light to darkness. Fitting in a pandemic

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In an empty nook of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in San Pedro, long-ago memories bubble up like seafoam.

Here, sailors used to huddle thousands of miles from home and regale each other with yarns about their lives. In a corner long since repurposed, the seafarers gathered to smoke, read newspapers from tiny towns in Norway and drink coffee. There were bunks to sleep, a pool table for entertainment and phone booths to call home, alongside Lutheran sermons. It was equal parts nourishment for body and soul.

The church, perched near the Port of Los Angeles, dates to the early 1940s, a haven for ship-weary crews who might be anchored for a week or two between sailings that often kept them away from the Nordic country for months at a time.

The chapel still boasts a nautical theme: A small wooden ship hangs from the sanctuary ceiling; a painting depicts crashing waves.

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The adornments bear witness to the church’s fading past, even as it transitions to a new phase — one in which homesick college students and Norwegian expatriates living in L.A. take comfort in the trappings of home.

“Today, it’s more kind of a gathering place for what we usually call ‘modern seamen,’” the Rev. Morgan Berg said of the people the church now serves.

Pastor Morgan Berg, 37, at the Norwegian Seaman’s Church.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

On Sunday, the church will celebrate St. Lucia’s Day, one of the biggest holidays in Scandinavia. The saint, a 4th century Sicilian girl martyred for her Christian faith, is represented as a woman wearing a white robe, red sash and a crown of glowing candles.

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“She brought light into darkness,” literally and metaphysically, said Berg — an uplifting observance fitting for a year that has seen the worst pandemic in a century.

Traditional St. Lucia’s Day celebrations feature a woman or girl dressed as Lucia, wearing the signature candle-adorned headpiece, leading a procession of singing children dressed as “star boys,” Santa’s helpers and gingerbread men. But like so many other events in 2020, this year’s parade and live concert were upended by the coronavirus, which is raging unchecked in L.A. County and beyond.

The church, instead, will have an outdoor service and screen a recorded musical program.

When the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission arrived in San Pedro in 1941, Norway reportedly boasted the largest shipping fleet in the world, with hundreds of vessels visiting the Los Angeles harbor every year. The Seamen’s Church — and dozens of others like it — were built in ports around the world, including one constructed in the early 1950s overlooking the bay in San Francisco.

“The sailors got to be here and have some connection with the home country” more than 5,000 miles away, said Jay Cook, an organist whose great-grandfather helped found the local church.

And the house of worship that offered much more became a beloved sanctuary, according to “50 Years on Beacon Street,” a Norwegian-language historical book put together by the church. Besides being a hub for mariners, the church became an anchor for the approximately 10,000 Norwegians living in L.A. at the time. To accommodate the growing numbers, the church moved to its current location, atop the Beacon Street bluff overlooking the San Pedro Harbor, in 1951.

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Until the mid-1970s, 400 Norwegian ships came through the harbor each year. By 1985, that number had been reduced by half, the Rev. Arne Oystese told The Times that year.

Catherine Chiaro, an Oslo native who moved to Southern California in 1987 and now works as an administrator at the church, remembers hunting down hometown newspapers for visiting sailors, who came by the hundreds annually.

She and Tone Grunwald, who bakes for the church and works in its gift shop, now see a different kind of bustle in the building. The women, both wearing matching red face masks and T-shirts bearing the Norwegian flag, recently helped customers purchase traditional Scandinavian Christmas decorations, such as julenisse, a Santa-like gnome, and julebukk, the Yule goat.

The church saw record sales during its annual Christmas market. They sold out of the bright-yellow S-shaped saffron buns called lussekatter that mark the holiday season.

“People are looking for that nostalgic sense,” Cook said. “Especially when, you know, isolation is the norm.”

The pandemic has brought plenty of changes to the Seamen’s Church. Two Norwegian couples heading the San Pedro site returned home earlier this year, and Berg, who had arrived from Norway in the summer of 2019 to pastor a sister church in San Francisco, now splits his time between the two locales.

Syhnove Helset and Andreas Helset at Norwegian Seaman's Church gift shop with three people in shirts showing Norway's flag.

Norwegians Syhnove Helset, left, and husband Andreas Helset, live in Pasadena, where Andreas attends Caltech. The couple chat with Liv Johansen, center, Catherine Chiaro and Tone Grunwald at the Norwegian Seaman’s Church’s gift shop in San Pedro.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

The tall, ruddy-cheeked minister was tasked by the church’s headquarters in Bergen, Norway, with surveying where his compatriots live on the West Coast. UC Berkeley likely has the largest group of students, with around 150, Berg said, but he is in contact with others across the state. About 50 to 60 students live in Southern California, he estimated.

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Norwegian high school students are typically allowed to spend their penultimate year in the country of their choice, but that didn’t happen in 2020 because of the coronavirus, Chiaro said.

Some college students returned home when the virus shuttered in-person classes. Others were left stranded in California because of visa and travel restrictions.

“They have relatives that die, and they can’t go home for their funerals,” said Hans Bratt Hernberg, priest of the Church of Sweden, which has shared a building with the Seamen’s Church since the late 1950s. “It’s really a mess.”

Because of the pandemic, the Church of Sweden is holding its St. Lucia celebration online this year. It’s a disappointing cap to a somber year for many, Hernberg said.

But there’s a bright — and sweet — spot. Berolina Bakery in Glendale is holding a Swedish shopping event on Sunday morning that will benefit the church.

With traffic in the port dwindling to just a handful of Norwegian ships, the church instead acts as a central hub for the roughly 15,000 expatriates living in the greater Los Angeles area, Berg said.

Amid the hopeful abatement of the pandemic in 2021 and the planned widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, a few passenger vessels have tentative arrival dates in May. Should those ships sail into the harbor, they’ll be met with an old tradition, the pastor says: blasting the Norwegian national anthem from the church’s loudspeakers.

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