Enjoy a Slovak Dinner and culture, say farewell to pastor

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Luanne Neumann, a member of St. Peter, spent two years in Bratislava, Slovakia, teaching high school-aged Evangelical Lutheran students religion and English literature in the English language.

Pastor Kyle Svennungsen served his first call as a pastor at St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church in Prairie du Chien for the past four years. He and his family are relocating to the Bratislava International Church in Slovakia.

Luanne Neumann (far left) stands with her Slovak Lutheran students, who she taught English literature during a mission through the Central Europe Teachers program. The students are holding a book, sponsored by the La Crosse Synod, that she chose for them to read. An upcoming Slovak Dinner fundraiser will help increase literature opportunities like this for Evangelical Lyceum students in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Submitted photo)

By Correne Martin

One member of Prairie du Chien’s St. Peter Lutheran Church returned last fall from Bratislava, Slovakia, where she taught teenagers English for two years. Now, St. Peter’s pastor and his family are relocating to the same Slovak community so he can serve as leader of the international church. 

A Slovak Dinner is scheduled Sunday, June 2, with a 5 p.m. reception and 6 p.m. dinner, as a fundraiser for the youth at both the St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) in Prairie du Chien and at the Evangelical Lyceum School in Bratislava. Luanne Neumann will provide the ethnic cuisine and a short program about her teaching mission. There will be a silent auction and Slovak music provided by Garrett O’Connell. Authentic beer and wine will be available at a cash bar as well.

This event will also give the congregation and community a chance to bid farewell to Pastor Kyle Svennungsen, his wife Anna and their two sons. The dinner will be the last official event of his ministry in Wisconsin. Dinner tickets, up to 100 people, can be purchased at the St. Peter church office, 201 S. Michigan St., or by calling 326-6411.

Pastor Kyle has served St. Peter ELC for the past four years, first as associate pastor alongside Senior Pastor Joe Irvin, and since September 2018, as the church’s only pastor. He was ordained in March 2015 and this was his first call as a pastor.

Interestingly, Kyle served his year-long pastoral internship at the same place he’s accepted his next call to—the Bratislava International Church—from August 2013 through August 2014. He was also a professor of religion there during that time. His wife was with him in Slovakia then too. 

Luanne came upon the opportunity to teach two school years through the Central Europe Teachers program purposely, and was assigned to the bilingual Lyceum in Bratislava. She spent essentially August 2016 to September 2018 abroad.

As a longtime non-traditional teacher, Luanne was an educator for eight years for the department of mental health, nine years in home economics for the UW-Extension, several years for Catholic Charities when the rural housing crisis hit and for the local cap office in financial counseling.

Upon retirement, she was running the Neumann House bed and breakfast and, in her words, “spending too much time in front of the TV.” Having always been politically charged—serving on city council and helping to institute Prairie’s downtown revitalization incorporation—Luanne was awakened to the idea of taking a teaching mission in Europe after attending a church workshop about hunger issues. 

She said she had always been a leader, but she “made a conscious decision to let God lead” her. 

“The Central Europe Teachers is part of the global mission of our church (the ELCA),” she stated. 

Luanne was accepted into the program and sent to Slovakia. She was one of nine from the U.S., including many fellow retirees, and her first-year assignment was to teach religion in English to middle-class, Lutheran students equivalent to American high schoolers. She focused on the Old Testament, New Testament and World Religion. 

“These kids need to learn how to speak about religion in English,” she explained. “Before the Communists left in 1989, most of their second language was Russian. After, it became English. Studies showed, if they had contact with native English speakers, they would excel more on standardized tests.”

In their written and oral testing, the students must know natural pauses, inflictions, idioms and an expansive English vocabulary, she noted, adding, “A good score gets them into university.”

When chosen to instruct for a second year, Luanne taught English literature, which included a lot of short stories and plays. 

Luanne herself learned survival Slovak while in the country. She also opened her eyes to a lot about the Communist era and how things have changed since. 

The school she taught in was established in 1606. She lived in a fifth-floor apartment in a neighborhood owned by the church. She grocery shopped daily and, every Wednesday, participated in chapel with various clergy associated with the church. 

“I preached one time,” she shared. “A group from the La Crosse area synod and I had gone to the Holy Land, on a 10-day tour and I told that story via pictures I’d taken.”

Luanne was given a laptop for her lessons and often projected TED talks, and shared articles and pictures as well as video to provide the students their curriculum. 

In her free time, she researched family genealogy and, of course, took in the sights. Much of her socialization took place through the Bratislava International Church’s 1700s sanctuary.

“A lot of the members of that congregation are really international—people interested in improving their English,” she said. “After church, we went for coffee and tea at a cafe called Next Apache (next person). People were always bringing goodies there and finding a way to celebrate God’s goodness. It was a multi-age group gathering place.”

Luanne pointed out the many foods Americans eat that they don’t realize are Slovak and Czech, like goulash, cabbage rolls, pork, sweet peppers and goat and sheep cheese.

Her greatest memory from her time in Europe came on Oct. 31, 2017, when she and two other teachers went to Wittenberg, Germany. It was 500 years to the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church where he lived and preached. 

“I’ll never forget that,” she said.

As Pastor Kyle prepares to head over to Bratislava, Luanne is also hoping to go back in her same capacity, and teach again at the school where her American pastor will soon become the pastor. In fact, she had a video interview last week and is hoping to hear soon if she’s accepted and assigned there or someplace else for a year or possibly two. If she doesn’t go back, she plans to continue serving God locally.

“This experience certainly strengthened my personal faith life. As I reflect on my career, it confirmed for me that I was meant to be a teacher,” stated Luanne, who comes from a strong teaching heritage. 

By attending the June 2 Slovak Dinner in Prairie du Chien, the community can say goodbye to the Svennungsen family, see pictures and hear about the Lutheran mission in Slovakia, and support youth educational experiences in both parts of the world. 

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