Prairie Dreams Remain
Morast, Robert. "Prairie Dreams Remain." Forum, 5 April 2008, sec. B1 and B3.
Listen to – or read – some reports of
the North Dakota landscape, and you’re given
images of a bleak prairie where dying towns are receding
into the vacant and vast fields of wind-whipped natural
And while many of the state’s small towns are
only getting smaller, images of a more prosperous
past remain. Standing tall against the backdrop of
social migration and aging populations are the churches
that have always tied these communities together.
Some are massive with ornate European designs topped
by steeples poking out of friendly neighborhoods.
Others stand alone as utilitarian and plain chapels
built on pasturelike parcels of land that could just
as easily serve as a farmer’s hay fields.
Whether active or retired, they remain as testaments
to communities that were – often – literally
built around these houses of God.
Monday at 8 p.m., Prairie Public Television will
air "Prairie Churches," a documentary
focused on the beauty, symbolism and importance of
small-town churches in North Dakota, western Minnesota,
Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
"They’re out there on the prairie as
monuments to the settlers," says Kim Stenehjem,
producer of the program. "They were built by
people who really believed that by building this beautiful
church … somehow the town would live up to their
And in North Dakota, those dreams were filled with
thoughts of the Father. According to a 2007 story
in USA Today, North Dakota has 2,300 churches. That’s
more, per capita, than any other state. Most of them
– more than three-fourths – can be found
in rural communities.
"You drive down these country roads and you
don’t see anything for miles and miles, and
then you see a steeple on the horizon," Stenehjem
says. "Some of these churches are kept open
… and I think that’s nice."
In some ways, if these hearts of the communities
still beat with the pulse of life, their towns can’t
The documentary – which was filmed over three
years as the production team visited 117 churches
– profiles not just the design and function
of these buildings but also the people who built them,
maintain them and in some cases the folks trying to
ensure that these churches don’t die.
"It’s a real sense of the community,"
says Sheldon Green, a writer and photographer for
Concordia College who co-authored the book "Magnificent Churches
on the Prairie."
Green, who is interviewed in the program, says these
prairie churches were often built in the center of
town and connected the townsfolk to their roots. For
some, the roots bound people through spiritual communion.
For others, the European designs – like domed
towers or stained glass windows – were a connection
to the homelands of German or Russian settlers. With
history in mind, the documentary makes it clear that
many people don’t want the roots of these churches
ripped from the prairie soil.
Among the documentary’s stories of civilians
purchasing and/or refurbishing prairie churches is
David Haslekaas a farmer who bought and preserved
the Hitterdal Church near Milton, North Dakota.
"This church means a lot for our family,"
Haslekaas says in the show. "We kept it not
just for our family but for other families."
Others are finding help through the Preservation
North Dakota, an organization intent on preserving
North Dakota’s past. The PND’s Prairie
Churches program has helped several rural communities
restore depressed or retired churches.
"I have no doubt that a large number of prairie
churches can be saved," Tom Isern, a North Dakota
State University history professor, says in the documentary.
"But it depends on people believing there’s
some reason to save them. It’s not a matter
of a shortage of resources. It’s a matter of
a shortage of faith. … Let’s invest a
Dakota has more churches per capita than any
other state. This church sits outside Arena,
N.D. Images courtesy of Prairie Public Television
Minn., is known for its large prairie chicken
sculpture, but the city’s South Immanuel
Lutheran Church is featured in Prairie Public’s
"Prairie Churches" program.
Bend’s Trinity Lutheran Church is featured
in the Prairie Public documentary "Prairie
Reprinted with permission of the Forum.