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Prairie Jewels

Hague's German Russian Settlers Built St. Mary's Catholic Church With an Old-World Elegance That Stands out Against the Drab Plains.

Herzog, Karen. "Prairie Jewels." Bismarck Tribune, 27 August 1995.


St. Mary's Catholic Church in Hague is nested in a ordinary drab, gray-and-tan prairie landscape.

But hidden behind three immense bronze doors, enclosed within high walls of red Hebron brick, unfolds her interior, an exquisite Faberge egg, all robin's egg blue, rose and cream.

As artist Peter Faberge once created fabulous jeweled Easter eggs for the Russian czars, the German-Russians of Hague created a breathtaking gem of a church on the windy prairie emptiness - not once, but twice.

St. Mary's first brick church was destroyed by fire, ironically on Ash Wednesday, February 13, 1929. Just over a year later, in the iron heart of the Depression, parishioners had rebuilt its near-duplicate, dedicating it June 19, 1930.

The stony hills of Emmons County were tilled to the tune of a staggering 80,000 in 1930 dollars to lift those spires again. The rebuilt church, valued at $l.2 million, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The churches of those devoted Catholic Dakota immigrants are the subject of an upcoming book, "Those Magnificent Churches: Immigrant Builders on the Prairie," by James Coomber, professor of English at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota with photographer Sheldon Green and students Erin Conroy and Amy Kjesbo.

The architect of St. Mary's was Charles Hausler from St. Paul, Minnesota who created in the Hague building a distinctive straight nave, rather than a Romanesque cross structure, Coomber said. The nave, named in Latin for its resemblance to a cavernous ship's belly, is the large congregation area from the main entrance to the chancel.

The works of artisans from Belgium, Germany and France filled the huge inner spaces with lush decoration. "St. Mary's is a pretty sophisticated place artistically," Coomber said.

High overhead, the cross-vaulted ceiling of the nave is latticed with x's of molded floral plasterwork. Floating above the center aisle among those narrow ribs, a series of guilt-edged oil paintings of the life of the Virgin Mary look down from the ceiling.

Thirteen stained glass windows portraying various saints glow along the north-south walls of the church. The windows are created of very refined glass and are expensive because of the great number of pieces in each, Coomber said. A sophisticated use of color shows in the windows, which are Roman-arched with semi-circular tops, rather than pointed in the Gothic style. They are just beautiful on a sunny day, Coomber said.

Statue-sized stations of the cross take worshippers along Jesus' final journey to Golgotha.

Angels fill the sanctuary. More than 100 kneel, fill altar niches, hold dishes with holy water, float on the walls or are pressed into decorative molding. The delicate spires and domes of the High Altar cup a statue of the Virgin, who wears a lighted crown.

An outside, up a typically gray and tan prairie hill, St. Mary's cemetery is needled with traditional "eiserne kreuze," - iron cross markers - where its pioneers rest. The cross symbolizes their faith, the iron, endurance.

Church built for era that never came

Railroad companies and politicians had lured immigrants to fill the immense Dakota prairies in the late 1800s with glowing promises of boom times just around the corner, when 8 to 10 million people would create a state as populous as Pennsylvania.

German-Russian immigrants, by the tens of thousands, toted their dozen-children families to the prairies of Dakota Territory.

A century later, North Dakota still waits for that promised population boom.

In building their new churches on the prairie, "these people were preparing for a period of history that never happened," James Coomber said.
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.

These great churches were the product of a strong European tradition, Coomber said, where the great cathedrals of Germany and France were surrounded by modest homes of villagers, who, in great devotion to their faith, were willing to sacrifice to have a magnificent church of their town.

That attitude migrated with those immigrants to Ukraine, especially in the Catholic settlements near the Black Sea. There the German colonists lived in communal villages and traveled as many as 10 to 20 miles out of the villages to work their land.

Set down on the American prairies, they were appalled that the Homestead Act required them to live separated on isolated sections of land. So the church also became a social center, the glue which kept a community together, Coomber said.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

The St. Mary's Catholic Church, Hague, ND, is featured in the book, Magnificent Churches on the Prairie: A Story of Immigrant Preists, Builders and Homesteaders.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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