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
In building their new churches on the prairie, "these people were
preparing for a period of history that never happened," James Coomber
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
Churches on the Prairie: A Story of Immigrant Preists, Builders