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A Past to Preserve: Former Members of Glueckstal's Congregation Grapple With the Fate of the Church That Nurtured Them

Herzog, Karen. "A Past to Preserve: Former Members of Glueckstal's Congregation Grapple With the Fate of the Church That Nurtured Them." Bismarck Tribune, 1 August 1996.


Tappen, ND -- Esther Werre walks among the marble and granite stones at Glueckstal Cemetery in rural Kidder County. Brushing grit from the carvings, she translates German dates, names, verses."Gone but not forgotten," reads one.

Those who grew up in Glueckstal's country quiet may well share that sentiment. Although they have moved on and now attend churches in Napoleon, Steele or Bismarck, they still love this small Lutheran church.

The former members of Glueckstal's congregation now must decide whether to continue to pay for repairs and upkeep on this building, whose regular services ended in 1985, or, as werre says, "put it to rest like we put everything else to rest."

North Dakota is dotted with these pioneer churches. Their nearby cemeteries are filled with family and the pioneers who came over the ocean and first turned a plow onto the virgin prairie sod. Their clans now scattered, a few nearby struggle to hold on. The aching sight of a beloved church becoming a farmer's outbuilding or granary desolates those who remember summer potluck picnics, vacation Bible school, softball games, confirmation nerves and Christmas Eve programs.

This morning, barn swallows swoop through the air, dipping under the eaves of Glueckstal church, tending three mud nests glued to the white walls.

The green shingles have faded a bit, but the walls are still sturdily square after 83 years. The bubbled glass in the arched Gothic windows is a patchwork -- some original lavender panes from 1913, some clear replacements.

Looking over the place, Werre and his daughter, Linda Becker, stoop to examine the foundation where a cement patch hopes to block out enterprising local honeybees.

Werre now lives in Napoleon, but she was a lifelong member of this country church until 1985. The family farm is just a short walk to the northwest.

Werre straightens up the laughs. Cement patch or not, she's got a feeling those bees are finding a way in and still making honey in the dark.

A black iron arch over the gate identifies Glueckstal Cemetery. Many of the Werre's relatives, among them her late husband, rest inside the neat fence. The farthest corner -- the children, headstones topped with white marble lambs -- slopes down to a noisy pond.

The roof needs repainting, Becker says. Her roots here include a great-grandfather, Jacob Werre Sr., who donated a corner of his own land for the two acres holding church and cemetery. And it's to this cemetery that she and her family will someday come home.

Becker, a school counselor who lives in Bismarck, has taken her late father's place as one of Glueckstal's five cemetery board members. All wish to preserve Glueckstal, she says.

Having just spent money for a chain link fence to protect the cemetery from wandering cattle, the board now must decide about the roof or whether to repaint the white walls, flaking from hailstorm beatings.

The place is thick with memories.

In a coal shed behind the church, shovels were stored once among the coal, Werre says. Into the 30s and 40s, congregation members still would come together to dig the graves of friends and neighbors.

In the tiny, pale yellow entry, the bell rope is tucked between rollers of an old enamel holder that reads "Season's Greetings -- Tappen Mercantile." At funerals, the custom was to ring the bell from the time the hearse could be seen approaching until the coffin was carried into the church, Werre recalls.

Inside dark brown varnished doors topped with wide schoolhouse cornices, a few pews remain.

Painted white and gold, the raised pulpit, lectern, altar and baptismal font are handmade. A door in the altar wall steps down to the tiny vestment room where pastors once robed.

Candles in pull-down chandeliers lit the church, and once, long ago, the ceiling above the altar alcove was painted with stars against a dark blue background, she remembers.

Below the white slatted ceiling, werre has touched up the gold German script, the declaration painted by Glueckstal's founders -- Glory to God in the highest, it reads.

"Descendants visit churches left behind"

Two Glueckstal churches, both built by Germans from Russia, are separated by half a continent, a whole ocean and a continent and a half.

Nine of the Kidder County Glueckstal founders were from Glueckstal village in Moldova, now an independent country that was once part of the Russian empire and, later, the Soviet Union. Other founders came from Friedenstal, Ziprige and Neudorf.

Herb and Mildred Thurn of Bismarck visited Glueckstal -- the village and the church named for it -- on a heritage tour to Russia, Ukraine and Moldova recently. Those regions are the homelands of large numbers of south central North Dakotans -- the villages and colonies their ancestors settled, then left in droves for America from about 1880 to 1917.

Looking for their ancestral German churches in the former Soviet Union, they found them, steeples amputated, shorn off during the Communist decades. Some are used for "houses of culture," movie theaters and other community functions. In others, abandoned roofs are open to the sky, walls crumbled, German cemeteries bulldozed.
Eric Schmaltz. The author is immigrant Johann Schmalz’s great-grandson.  Born in Minot, North Dakota, in 1971, he is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, where he teaches Modern European and World History.  He expresses his eternal gratitude to old issues of the Emmons County Record as well as various extended relatives by blood or marriage who have assisted him with family history research over the past two decades, in particular Bro. Placid Gross, Mrs. Mary Lynn Axtman, Mrs. Nicole (French) Bailey, Prof. Amy Deibert, and Prof. Michael M. Miller.

Most Germans who stayed behind in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 disappeared with millions of others in the decades of Stalin's rule and during World War II.

Of the 11 children of Thurn's great-grandfather, five stayed in Russia and six came to the United states. Two great-uncles who stayed behind were among those murdered, he said.

Some of those in Russia fled back to Germany during World War II with the retreating German Army. After the war, Stalin demanded the return of those people to Russia, where they were promised their homes back, Thurn said. Instead, they were forcibly deported to Siberia and disappeared forever.


Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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