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Quiet Sanctuaries

"Quiet Sanctuaries." Minot Daily News, 16 September 2000, sec. C1 & C2 .


The stone grotto, reminiscent of that at Lourdes, France, is a quiet sanctuary at Orrin.

ORRIN - Two city blocks surrounding Sacred Heart Catholic Church at Orrin are quiet shady

sanctuaries now, with two shrines drawing few visitors.

But for Monsignor Joseph Senger of Minot, the shrines bring back memories of the World War II era, laden with church ceremonies, a fervent desire for peace, and a time of abundance in North Dakota.

The shrine south of the church building, dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, stands in a fieldstone grotto behind a kneeling bench.

The Fatima shrine north of Sacred Heart is a memorial to five men from the congregation who died in World War II. A lane of trees bounded with white crosses honoring the soldiers, leads to statue topped pillars, the tallest rising about 30 feet in the air.

Two statues of kneeling children are on either side, and soldiers' names are engraved on a granite stone beneath the altar.

Each reminds Catholics of appearances of the Virgin Mary to children in France and Portugal, urging people to prey for peace worldwide.

Vibrant time

The stone grotto, reminiscent of that at Lourdes, France, is a quiet sanctuary at Orrin.

"That time during and after World War II was a vibrant time and the church was the center of the community," Senger said.

Today Orrin includes a half dozen homes scattered among vacant buildings. During World War II Sacred Heart and churches associated with it at Balta, Fulda and Blumenfeld each had a resident priest and about 1,000 members drawn from the large German-Russian families, he said.

The Kandel church, named for a town in Alsace-Lorraine, stood about two miles south of Orrin. When the railroad bypassed that area, the church was moved nearer to town. That building and the Catholic church in the city both burned.

Then church authorities sent the Rev. Julius Binder, a young priest from Austria, to build a new church in Orrin.

His predecessor, the Rev. Leo Fell, advocated a modern-style square church with a central altar surrounded by pews, but Binder agreed with his congregation, erecting a traditional red-brick church. Binder, missing the forests of his homeland, caused a mini-revolution in town by tree planting. The churchyard had a barn and pasture where parishioners kept horses during services. Townspeople who had a cow or two also allowed them to graze in the pasture.

North Dakota fieldstone faces the shady Stations of the Cross around Sacred Heart Church in Orrin.

Instant forest

"Father Binder got Barbara Schell's young son to plow up the pasture and planted hundreds of trees from the Soil Conservation Service," Senger said. "They were planted too thick; I think he wanted an instant forest."

Then the priest began work on the shrines. The Lourdes altar, built during World War II, was constructed of fieldstone from fields of parishioners who were happy to be rid of them. High school and younger students did 90 percent of the work, Senger said.

"He also got a load of glittering mica rock to decorate it," Senger said. "He did the rock work. I remember him yelling, `Rock! Rock!' and we hurried over with more stones."

Binder also built a semi-circle of Stations of the Cross, each about 7 feet tall and covered with rock. Individual families, responsible for a single Station, competed in surrounding them with flowers.

Senger and Barbara Schell, now in a Rugby nursing home, devoted about 50 years to caring for the shrines and planting flowers.

The Fatima shrine, built at the end of the war, was dedicated at a Mass by Bishop Leo Dworshak, one of many Masses celebrated at the outdoor altar. Pillars on which the statues stand are cement-filled culverts, lifted into place with Farmhand loaders on tractors.

Monsignor Joseph Senger, formerly of Velva and now living in Minot, said in that era. "The church was the center of both religious and social life. We had no movies and no television yet. The church was our Hollywood."

He recalled the glamour and ceremony surrounding services when weddings, Confirmation and special holy days were huge celebrations, drawing many priests serving flourishing surrounding towns.

He said high school students, wearing capes of royal blue, led many of the processions, often candle-lit as they are at Lourdes in France.

"We had Saturday evening services, not Mass, but services," he said. "Everyone came to town, and after church we all went downtown. Men would have a beer, women sold their cream, and we kids would get a nickel to buy our beloved `Russian peanuts' (sunflower seeds) to chew while we played games."

Weddings were another large celebration with festive meals.

"Dances were a big part of them," Senger said. "There was a special seniority to the first dances: the bride and groom together, then with their parents. The most heart touching moments were when an elderly grandparent would take the floor with the bride or groom, even for a few steps."

It was considered a special blessing to live long enough to dance at weddings of grandchildren.

"I vividly remember the little children, nieces and nephews, dancing with the bride," Senger said. "Children were never excluded from the celebration."

Then the population, communities and churches began to decline.

Now just one missionary priest, the Rev. Jose Shaji from India, lives in Balta and serves Orrin, Balta, Fulda and the Blumenfeld area.

"These churches were built when the German-Russian population was growing rapidly," he said. "Times were prosperous and we felt there was a great future coming for North Dakota. We built these churches to last a hundred years.

"Now we see a total change in the picture for the state, its schools and churches. It's sad to see these beautiful churches empty and the shrines almost unused."

Reprinted with permission of the Minot Daily News.

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