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Prairie Churches of North Dakota

Jacobs, G. Anita. "Prairie Churches of North Dakota." High Plains Reader, 15 October 2003, 18-19.


Imagine the North Dakota prairie 75, 100, 125 years ago. Wherever a band of immigrants put down roots, often the first thing they put up was a church. They were only a buggy ride away from one another.

Today, North Dakota still has more than 2,200 churches, more per capita than any other state in the nation. Of those churches, 78 percent are in rural areas or small towns, and 57 percent are considered historic, more than 50 years old.

Twenty percent are closed or being used for something besides worship. It's estimated that five to 10 more will close each year. Those statistics come from a survey done by volunteers across the state in 1998-1999, in which each church building was photographed and catalogued. Collectively, the Prairie Churches of North Dakota were named to the 11 Most Endangered Properties List compiled by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2001, to call attention to the need to preserve the historically significant rural architectural heritage.

To share all that is being done to document, preserve and protect the state's rural prairie churches, the State Historical Society of North Dakota will present an exhibit at the Heritage Center in Bismarck entitled, "Prairie Churches of North Dakota." The exhibit was created in
partnership with Preservation North Dakota and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Co-curated by Shawn Holz, the exhibit opens to the public on Oct. 25 and includes almost 300 images, as well as artifacts, from among the state's 2,200 churches.

"It's unlike any other exhibit we've had," says Holz. In addition to the sheer amount of information in the exhibit, "there's a lot of emotional content."

Imagine how farmers in the Buffalo area brought fieldstones to town by wagon, dropping them off at the empty church lot to use as building material for the Calvary Episcopal Chapel. Today that building is part of the Heritage Center in Buffalo and serves as a museum.

In the Warsaw area, the Catholic immigrants named their church after St. Stanislaus. The brick structure was easily the biggest and most impressive building for miles around. After restoration several years ago, it is still a remarkable place of worship.

In Billings and Stark Counties, the Ukrainian immigrants built churches that looked like the buildings they were accustomed to in their homeland, complete with their onion-shaped domes.

Pictures of each of these churches are included in the exhibit, which details the historical and continued importance of the churches in their communities. Among the artifacts that come from the Historical Society's permanent collection are a church bell from Woyatan Raven Hill
Presbyterian Church, an altar and altar painting from Dodge Lutheran Church, along with vestments, chalice, Communion cups, and cassock. "There is no other building that elicits so many human connections," says Dale Bentley, executive director of Preservation North Dakota. "The church is where many life events -- baptisms, confirmations, weddings, celebrations, social activities and funerals-- have taken place for generations. In a historic church, you are connected to the sense of place, memories of home, as well as the traditions and faith of your ancestors."

Architectural styles, stained glass windows, altar art and statuary -- all these elements make the buildings unique to North Dakota. The exhibit also talks of the ethnic backgrounds that settled the state: Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, German, Polish and Ukrainian. It explores their
unique social, ceremonial and community traditions.

It also talks of the loss of history when a church building is intentionally or accidentally destroyed.

An Icelandic church, Thingvalla Lutheran Church in Pembina County, was having restoration work done on its windows when a fire broke out, and the building burned to the ground. Untold heritage was lost.

Tonset Lutheran Church in Burke County was struck by lightning, and part of the steeple burned. The church was saved in part by the pressed tin paneled interior that was never replaced with modern Sheetrock. With the assistance of a grant from Preservation North Dakota, the congregation members rebuilt the steeple and left one charred board over the door to remind people how close the church came to burning down completely. What is more distressing is when a church is closed and then abandoned or demolished by its former congregants.

Preservation North Dakota, a state-wide historic preservation group, has been awarding grass-roots grants, providing technical assistance, and hosting demonstration projects to show that "it doesn't take much to save a building."

"It only takes a few dollars and one person to make a difference," says executive director Bentley. Preservation North Dakota has made saving the prairie churches its main thrust for the past five years. Grants have been made possible through the J. M. Kaplan Fund, Save America's Treasures, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as grass roots
efforts by the members of Preservation North Dakota.

One such demonstration project was at Ladbury Church, located north of Valley City. Closed in 1936, the building was used for Memorial Day services. But time and nature took its toll on the building. Preservation North Dakota brought in its members, the services of an architect, fund-raising advice, a small grant award and solicited the help of area volunteers to restore the church.

Meeting at the remote location for several weekends throughout the summer, the volunteers shored up the foundation, filled in the basement, replaced the roof, and gave the clapboard building a coat of badly needed paint. "More importantly, the group showed that it could be done," says Bentley, who was among the volunteers. The building has since been used for two weddings, a lecture series, Memorial Day services, celebrations and community picnics.

The exhibit in Bismarck also shows another aspect of the Prairie Churches of North Dakota project -- the success stories of little congregations. Preservation North Dakota works with congregations that are interested in maintaining and preserving their historic churches. Sometimes a congregation will sell or donate their building to be used as something else -- a museum, a senior citizen center, daycare center, a retail shop, theater or a home. The best way to preserve these buildings, however, is to continue to use them for their intended purpose.

The ultimate form of recycling, adaptive reuse is a preferred alternative to abandonment. Church buildings can also be preserved, "moth-balled," for use during special heritage services.

"The only thing necessary is for someone to care," says Bentley. "Who knows what the future will bring? We have examples of churches that have been empty for over 60 years that have found new life -- some even opening their doors to the community for worship and others finding new uses."

A New Jersey woman called Bentley with praise for the Prairie Churches of North Dakota project. "When you save these churches, you're not just doing it for North Dakota," she explained. "This is America's heritage, too."

"She's right," adds Bentley. "These churches have a great story to tell, the story of westward expansion and settlement. The story of North Dakota."

After its year long display at the Heritage Center in Bismarck, a portion of the exhibit will be packed up and travel the state, borrowed by smaller museums for temporary use.

Reprinted with permission of High Plains Reader.

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