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Pioneer Days German Service: a 28-Year Tradition

Lind, Bob. "Pioneer Days German Service: a 28-Year Tradition." Forum, 15 August 1997, sec. 1B.


Arnold Marzolf will lead the German worship services during Pioneer Days at Bonanzaville.

The tradition continues at Bonanzaville Sunday.

Worship services in three languages - a Latin Mass at 8 a.m. and Protestant services in Norwegian at 9:30 a.m. and German at 11 a.m. - will be held during Pioneer Days in West Fargo.

Once again, Arnold Marzolf will lead the German service, just he has every year since the first one 28 years ago.

Oh, there'll be some English, too, Marzolf says."Because we're getting so many people who don't understand German. But the prayers, the music, maybe 65 percent of it all will be in German, with enough English thrown in so people don't get lost."

Marzolf, of Fargo, has served churches in Lehr and Bismarck, N.D., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in Ohio. He has taught at the North Dakota School of Forestry, Bottineau. He also taught German for 25 years at North Dakota State University, retiring in 1983 when he was made professor emeritus.

Marzolf is 81 and doesn't look it. That's because of his students, he says, "You can't work with wonderful, wonderful bright young people without staying young."

Many of the 250-some people who attend the Pioneer Days German service each year are his former students.

Marzolf says the service in German is not to perpetuate the language. "It's a beautiful way of showing our children and grandchildren how we used to worship 50-60 years ago," he says.

Only German was spoken in his home at Anamoose, N.D. when Marzolf was growing up, which led to a problem on his first day of school when he was 6.

When recess came, he went home. His astonished mother wondered why. Young Arnold told her there was something wrong with the teacher: "Her mouth opened and closed but something was coming out I can't understand."

His mother told him the teacher was speaking English. "Until then, I didn't know there was any other language but German," he says.

Poor but content

Marzolf's father, a German from Russia, was "a wonderful Blacksmith," Marzolf, "a good, honorable man who worked hard, who loved his family and his church and who loved to sing."

But blacksmithing during the Depression meant low pay. Marzolf's father did hundreds of dollars of work for farmers and never got paid except for an occasional sack of potatoes and a couple of chickens.

When Marzolf went to Westmar College, LeMars, Iowa, he shoveled coal in the heating plant for 15 to 20 cents a day, and he never bought a candy bar or ice cream cone in his four years there; only pencils, paper and other essentials.

However, being poor economically didn't mean poor spiritually. "At home, every night after supper," Marzolf says, "We had the family alter. Mom or dad read from the German Bible, then we prayed in German. Then we went into the sitting room, where the organ was, and we sang the old hymns of the church. I loved that"

He still loves to sing. "It's like eating; you have to sing," he says.

He feels some of his best teaching at NDSU was with a guitar. "I'd sing German choruses," he says. "Later, the kids would come to my house for bull sessions. Eventually I'd sing secular songs, then they'd ask me to sing the hymns, and ask me to tell about my relationship with God, and I'd tell them about Christ my Lord. It always happened."

Marzolf has served several denominations. Now he's with the United Church of Christ. "I served the UCC churches in Argusville and Grandin (N.D.) for 10 years while I was at NDSU, so I decided why not? So I switched to the UCC," he says.

Grandpa and author

Marzolf's assets two daughters, seven grandchildren and five books of which the most recent, "Prairie Poems Revisited," combines two of his earlier books of poetry.

He began a Christmas tradition in 1989 by conducting the first of the annual German-English language Christmas services in the Fargo Moravian Church.

He leads singing in German at the annual meeting of the German from Russia Heritage Society and he leads an annual service in German at Lehr, where he first started preaching 56 years ago.

At the Bonanzaville service, he'll be wearing a robe that is more than 50 years old. Its color? Well, he says, "In my old church, the Evangelical Church, we had robes in only one color, and it was black."

Guess what color the robe he wears Sunday will be.

Worshiping in German is a beautiful way of showing our children and grandchildren how we used to worship 50-60 years ago.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum, Fargo, North Dakota.

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