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Winter 2004: Prairie Churches of North Dakota

Posted by Cher Hersrud 10/20/2016 1:00:43 PM

Churches hold many memories within their walls. Christine Hall, age 92, clearly remembers a particular Christmas hymn from Thingvalla Lutheran Church, built in 1892. After singing a brief section in the Icelandic language, she translates the title as, "Today There is Joy in Weary Hearts." 


Christine's memories are particularly important, as the Thingvalla Church recently burned to the ground. "It was devastating," she exclaims. "The inside was so beautiful and it can never be replaced."


"Those prairie churches just breathe memories when you are standing quietly inside them," says Barbara Lang of Jamestown, president of Preservation North Dakota which, through its Prairie Churches Project, is dedicated to keeping as many churches as possible on the landscape.


"It is so important to preserve our past for the benefit of our future. It seems to me that without a good knowledge and appreciation of our history, we will become rootless floaters, destined to drift without real purpose."


Thingvalla was one of the Icelandic churches of northeast North Dakota, which are an excellent example of the development and ongoing commitment made within North Dakota to its prairie churches. Immigrants arriving through Canada from Iceland built eight churches within walking distance of each other. The churches were the community center for the Icelandic families. Susan Sigurdson is a Preservation North Dakota board member who now lives in Moorhead, Minnesota, but continues to have close ties to her hometown of Mountain. She remembers the mowing days for the Icelandic churches, "when everyone just showed up to mow and care for the cemetery. That commitment remains today."


The beautiful Icelandic churches are divided into the town churches and the prairie churches. Limited population necessitated a merger of most of the churches into one congregation, and until recently winter services were held in the town churches on a rotating basis, with summer services held in the prairie churches.


The emotional loss of the Thingvalla Church in June 2003 was an international news event. The late-night fire that destroyed the church was front page news in Iceland. Susan Sigurdson, very thankful that the church was documented through photographs, softly says, "It is a part of our heritage lost." Sigurdson is a strong proponent for preservation efforts and particularly the Prairie Churches Project. She states, "We provide a piece of hope for people, someone that also believes that their church has value … and someone to help them."


Traditions Maintained

Christmas traditions are a part of many families' lives. Christmas memories are particularly special; especially the Christmas programs, with generations of children, shiny and bright, in anticipation of presenting their "speaking part." Standing out on the prairie, one can still almost hear the beautiful sound of "Silent Night" floating across the prairie, with the church the most brightly lit spot for miles around. 


These traditions are maintained at churches in several locations within the state. Area residents congregate annually at 6 p.m. on Christmas Day at North Trinity Church in Nash, to ring the church bell. Armed with cellular phones, the residents call former members of the congregation who live across the country so that they can hear the bell and remain a part of the annual tradition. Some let their answering machine record the ringing of the bell, so they can replay it. Built in 1893 by a group of Swedish immigrants, the church closed in 1952. Yet it continues to offer one service yearly and holds an annual picnic on Father's Day.


In Richland County, near Galchutt, the St. John's Church bell rings from 5 to 6 p.m. every Christmas Eve. Built in 1882, services were held in the church until 1941, when the congregation divided. Commitment to the church remains strong - three times the steeple has been struck by lightning, and three times the congregation has repaired shingles, siding, and even the interior of the steeple. The bell has never been damaged. A donation from one of the parishioners established an endowment fund for repair and maintenance.


These are just two examples of the commitment made to preserving the prairie churches and their traditions. North Dakota has more churches per capita than any other state. There are more than 2,200 churches within North Dakota, and although many of them are no longer holding services, they are being cared for, their memories and traditions retained.


Picture North Dakota Churches

The Picture North Dakota Churches project was a successful statewide volunteer effort to document the state's churches. Armed with survey forms and film in 1998, volunteers logged more than 15,000 miles and spent hundreds of hours covering all 53 counties. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation North Dakota worked with state, local, and national groups to investigate and uncover success stories. It also developed a needs assessment program to support preservation efforts in rural areas with limited funds and small or non-existent congregations.


In fall 2003, a collaborative effort by the North Dakota State Historical Society of North Dakota, Preservation North Dakota, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation culminated in the launch of an exhibit of North Dakota's Prairie Churches at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. The beautiful exhibit features success stories and many photographs of the prairie churches. More than 250 people attended the exhibit opening and, after the exhibit closed in October, it is available as a traveling exhibit to other area museums.


Grassroots Effort is Personal

Preservation North Dakota is truly a grassroots organization. The board is an active board, and a wealth of resources and assistance have been developed by the organization.


Grant funds from the J. M. Kaplan Fund and Save America's Treasures support a Grassroots Grant program that has supported more than 20 preservation projects. Preservation North Dakota offers assistance to groups forming for ongoing preservation through an affiliate program that includes technical assistance in nonprofit development and fiscal sponsorship for donations. 


The Director and Board members of

Preservation North Dakota selected the Ladbury Church near Sibley in 2001 as a demonstration project. They committed their time and talents to the project through many work days. More than 3,000 volunteer hours turned an abandoned church into a new community center, just in time for a wedding to be held. The board and staff of Preservation North Dakota spent three months on the project and became a part of the church family.


Board President Lang is an enthusiastic participant in the process. "Physically working on the little churches allows me to truly connect with the past and keep hope alive for the future!" she says. "I can almost hear and feel the people who attended those churches so many years ago, who worked so hard to make the place a special one for their families. Every scratch on the floors represents a human action that was a part of someone's life."


Lang says she will never forget an older woman who told her she remembered as a child sitting in a little prairie church. "She remembers tracing patterns the sunshine made on the floor and the church pew she was sitting in ... rather than listening to the sermon! What a wonderful memory!"


Lang knows every prairie church has stories relating to its basements - the scene of untold numbers of church and community events. "Children would run up and down the stairs and sneak up to the bell tower to ring the bell when they weren't supposed to climb that high!" she says. "Don't you wonder how many marriage proposals might have been made during a church supper?"


Memories of wedding receptions in church basement include images of punch and cake, colored mints, and dishes of peanuts. "Silver tea services stood at both ends of the table, with someone's mother all dressed up, to 'pour' for the guests," Lang says.


"I can recall playing background music on the piano for one such wedding reception," Lang recalls of her home church. "I wore a turquoise chiffon formal gown, and had my hair pinned up in a French roll, which I thought was very sophisticated. I must have been about 14 years old. It is still such a vivid memory that I can smell the coffee brewing in the church kitchen."


Heart and Soul

The heart of Preservation North Dakota is its willingness to travel across the state to work with people interested in preserving their churches. Veronica Miller, a board member, laughs, "I love those meetings in churches, where you can see your breath and your pen freezes."


Both Sigurdson and Preservation North Dakota executive director Dale Bentley agree, "It does not take an army. A few committed people can save a church." If the heart of the organization is the willingness to help, the soul of the Prairie Churches project is the people, both past and present, committed to their churches.


A Piece of American History

Bentley recalls a telephone call he received after the Prairie Churches project had received newspaper coverage in the New York Times. A woman from New Jersey called to support the organization. She indicated she had never been to North Dakota, but said "I wanted to thank you for preserving part of my American heritage." Recalling the conversation, Bentley shakes his head, "This is not simply about North Dakota nor religion; this is about our history and our heritage, and our communities." 


That statement reminds Bentley of yet another story. A woman returned to her hometown area in North Dakota and visited her former church. She was impressed with the care and maintenance and asked for the price of a cemetery plot. She was told $8.50. She sent a check for $850.


There are many stories and many vivid memories. The calls continue to come in from across the prairie to the Preservation North Dakota office, and the organization continues to respond.


Preservation North Dakota is a nonprofit organization and struggles to build a financial base to support its continued work. The single staff position requires a difficult balance between fundraising and active fieldwork, Bentley says.


A recent grant award to Preservation North Dakota from the J. M. Kaplan Fund will allow the organization to further expand its web page, to include more resources, products, increased documentation of success stories and an increased number of photographs.


For more information about the organization, see its web page: or call the Preservation North Dakota office in Buffalo, North Dakota, at 701-633-2763.


Cher Hersrud is a Bowman native who manages The Resource Center, a statewide technical assistance program for North Dakota nonprofit organizations and rural communities. The Center is a division of the North Dakota Community Foundation. She is a regular contributor to North Dakota Horizons.

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