Happy 100th Birthday, Irene Peterson!

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

On November 25th, the oldest member of Bethlehem who is still walking the earth turns 100. Irene Peterson attended Bethlehem for over 90 years. Only recently did she move to be near her daughter Joan in Washington, D.C. Joan says what Irene misses most is the body at Bethlehem.

We miss you too, Irene.

Some people get crotchety when they get old. But Joan says, “Mother is mellowing and aging well. Her neighbor calls their home Finishing School; she is finishing well!” Though her loss of hearing makes conversing difficult, word has it that the staff and fellow residents of Ingleside at Rock Creek love her. “Her quiet appreciative ways are winsome!”

Irene was raised on the northside of Minneapolis. Joan recalls that both of her parents worked hard but had good senses of humor. “We had many happy moments in my childhood home. They were both very unselfish. They worked well together. I can still see them paying bills and doing the dreaded taxes on the dining room table.”

Irene carried an unusual burden as a young girl due to her mom’s health. Yet she was in a hiking club and took Norwegian in High School. She is using that language even today to teach her converted Jewish next-door neighbor Norwegian. She was a good student, graduating early, too early to get into nursing training, so she worked a year first. 

She graduated from Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing, worked as an office nurse, a private nurse, and at Deaconess Hospital. Later she worked at a bookstore, and much later for her brother Dr. A. B. Johnson. She was married to Carl A. Peterson by Bethlehem’s long-time pastor Anton Sjolund in 1938.

Back to the theme of hard work for a moment. Irene was disciplined. She exercised every day, Joan says, until she was 90. Recently she commented that she didn’t think we would be idle in heaven; there would be things to do. Joan recalls,

As I was growing up, I never saw my mother idle. (Sometimes I would have liked to just sit and talk, but that was not her style.) Mom was able to sew, clean, wallpaper, paint, cook, bake, can, entertain, research, organize, preside, speak . . . . She was most resourceful and frugal, using old clothes to make new clothes or rugs, using dried up bread for bread pudding. Nothing was wasted.

This industry made its way into her reading habits and was shaped by her inquisitive mind. Joan says,

She always had a stack of books on her bedside table. Being a night owl, and not an early morning person, she often would read late into the night. Her curiosity, mostly about nature or history or biography or devotional life, did not extend into why people act or respond as they do, which she dismissed as “we didn't analyze every thing in my day.” Her vocabulary often surprises me as she pulls just the perfect word out of her mind.

She rose to leadership positions in various organizations: PTA president, Guardian of Job’s Daughters, nurse for a Minnehaha Academy choir tour, her Study Club, the Y’s Menettes group, her beloved Luncheon Club and Birthday Club ladies (many from Bethlehem), the 55+ group at Bethlehem, the King’s Daughters, and her beloved White Cross group.

Irene does not remember a time when she was an unbeliever. But she does recall “making a definite decision at age 15 at Bethlehem when a visiting evangelist held meetings.” She took a two-year history and doctrine class from Pastor Eric Carlson. Besides the leadership roles mentioned above, she was involved in heading up the Cradle Roll Department, taught Sunday School, and participated wholeheartedly in her circle’s reading group.

All my memories of Irene are positive. She has been a great encourager to me. I recall Carl as a grand old man—a dignified man. It was hard to lose him. But God has been faithful to Irene and to Bethlehem. They have grown up together. Irene has been a part of God’s faithfulness to Bethlehem for 90/137ths of the church’s history. Indeed God’s faithfulness to Bethlehem has come mainly through the faithfulness of people like Irene. I have only been here 28 years. Therefore, I am the beneficiary of decades of faithfulness of those who have gone before me—like Irene Peterson.

When asked if there was anything she wanted done at her 100th birthday party, she replied that she wanted the song “Trust and Obey.” Joan comments, “This is not surprising as it was a hallmark of her life.”  She likes to quote a related poem:

Trust Him when dark days assail thee,
Trust Him when your faith is small,
Trust Him when to only trust Him,
Is the hardest thing of all.

Amen, Irene. Amen. Thank you for setting a good example for us in so many ways—especially in trusting Jesus through thick and thin. May the Lord sustain you, as he promised he will. “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4).

Lovingly for all your friends at Bethlehem,

Pastor John