Phillip Formo
Phillip Formo
Andreas Helland was born in July of 1870 in Fitjar, Norway, about 40 miles southwest of Bergen, off the coast of the Scandinavian country. At the age of 13, he left home to go to school in Stavanger, Norway, and at 19, he boarded a steamship for America.

The Norwegian immigrant settled in Harmony soon after coming to the new country and taught at several schools near Harmony and in the area. He lived with the Rev. Dryer and the Mikkel Rockne family during his teaching tenure and fell in love with Clara Rockne, whom he later married in 1893. He enrolled as a seminary student at Augsburg in Minneapolis, but before he was ordained, he preached at Greenfield Lutheran in June of 1890. One of his brothers, Kristen, also came to America and worked on a farm near Harmony for a period of time.

Helland's story is told in a new book, "Papa: A Life Remembered," written by his grandson, Phillip Formo, who will share his book and his memories of his grandfather at a special event on Sunday, Feb. 9, at QUARTER/quarter Restaurant and Wine Bar in Harmony. The Harmony Historical Society will be hosting the event, from 2 to 4 p.m., in the restaurant's wine bar. There will be free appetizers created by Chef Stephen Larson. Wine, beer and soft drinks will be available for purchase.

As a preview to the upcoming event, Formo explained that his grandfather had left a lasting impression on him. He opens his book with a letter written to his late grandfather, remembering a time when his grandparents lived with his family when Formo was a young child.

He thanks his grandfather for writing his own memoir, even though Formo said his grandfather "thought a memoir was something written by someone with a large ego." Yet, he is grateful for those typewritten pages his grandfather left behind and used them to weave the story we find in "Papa: A Life Remembered."

Formo said his grandfather's legacy involves his commitment to the church and to the world missions. Following Helland's example of teaching and dedicating his life to God, his children also followed the calling to serve the Lord.

"On my writing desk is the typewriter he used to write carbon copy letters to his missionary daughter in China and missionary sons in India and Madagascar," Formo said.

The author also followed in his grandfather's footsteps and became a teacher and pastor, serving churches in the Minnesota communities of Austin, Roseville, Rochester and Bloomington.

"I am a second career pastor, teaching special education in the Minneapolis Public Schools for eight years prior to serving on a call committee," Formo explained. "Instead of finding a pastor, they wanted me to take the job. I didn't, but within six months knew I was going to the seminary."

Formo said his grandfather's career inspired him. "I was told by a group of pastors lately, that they still talk about him as a key person in the Lutheran Free tradition, free from the traditional state church of Norway," he added.

Now, in retirement Formo continues to serve as a clergy coach and enjoys writing and traveling.

"At the time I retired in January 2011, my wife gave me the gift of going anywhere in the world to take a writing class," Formo said. "I have attended the Iowa Writer's Festival for many years. I chose a class in England and one of the Oxford trained teachers had written a novel about his grandfather, a Methodist pastor in the mid 1850s. I had already thought about writing about a family member."

Formo's book is based on his grandfather's memoir and noted that while the actual events are true, the letters, journal and conversations have been added. "He has always been an inspiration to me," he added in reference to his grandfather.

The writing of his book took Formo 28 months, with research conducted in the Harmony area with the help of Marilyn Trouten and the historical society and additional information gathered at the history library at the Minnesota History Museum.

Formo's connections to Harmony extend beyond his grandfather's ties. In addition to the fact that Helland's first wife died at her childhood home in Harmony and his grandfather taught parochial school, which was a month-long Norwegian Vacation Bible School, for three summers, Harmony residents Ralph and Carol Beastrom were members of his congregation in Rochester and Marilyn Trouten's aunt and uncle were members of his congregation in Austin.

"It is all such a small world," he added. "Also, I have never felt so appreciated than by the folks of Harmony. My first editor, Jean Lingen's brother, John, was the pastor of Greenfield years ago and his first wife died while he was serving that congregation. I was amazed to see the large cemetery stone that has the Rockne name on one side and Helland on the other. Clara Helland is the only Helland buried there. Amazing."

Formo said he had visited Fitjar, Norway, the native home of his grandfather, in 1969 and was able to stay with several relatives. He said that trip was also a "real inspiration."

Now that he's completed a book about his grandfather, Formo shared that he is planning to write his own memoir in the form of thematic essays. "Both my mother and father wrote stories of their lives and so I am just continuing the tradition," he explained. "This (the book about his grandfather) is the first published for public consumption."

As his grandfather left a legacy for his family members to be proud of, Formo hopes to leave one for his descendants as well. "First I want to be remembered as a faithful husband, a loving father, and then a faithful pastor and creative writer," he said.

He and his wife, Jean, currently live in Savage, Minn., and they have two grown daughters, Carrie and Krista.

"My wife is the artist in the family," he said. "She is a professional calligrapher who had taught all over the U.S.A. and Canada."

During his visit to Harmony for the book-signing event Sunday, Feb. 9, Formo will also be the guest speaker at Greenfield Lutheran's worship service. There will be a short reception with the author in the fellowship hall following the service.

"I am honored to be asked to preach at Greenfield Lutheran Church, the congregation my grandfather first preached as a fill in, prior to even going to seminary," Formo said.

Later that day, when he visits with area residents at QUARTER/quarter, Formo said he will speak about why he wrote the book and read sections from it as well. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the book signing.

Formo noted that proceeds from the sale of his book go to a scholarship in his grandfather's memory at Augsburg College where he taught and worked for over 40 years.