Renovation Polishes the Prairie Jewel of St. Mary's
Herzog, Karen. "Renovation Polishes the Prairie Jewel of St. Mary's Church." Bismarck Tribune, 27 November 2000.
More than 90 years after a Christmas Midnight Mass gleamed out
onto a cold 1908 winter night in western North Dakota, the church
that celebrated its first service that night is being restored behind
its sturdy solid-brick facade.
That 1908 winter at Richardton, that Midnight Mass was the first
service held in the magnificent church built by monks and immigrants.
The church still serves Assumption Abbey and the parishioners of
Times have changed, along with electric wiring and sound systems,
but the basic beauty of St. Mary's remains, luring more than 4,000
visitors each year to marvel at the soaring lines of the ornate
church and listen to the echoes of footsteps and choir voices in
the cavernous interior.
Services have been suspended while an extensive $2 million renovation
restores the time- and weather-induced wear and tear, clears and
rearranges some of its inner spaces for a more open look and updates
some of the original utilities.
During the renovation, St. Mary's Parish worships in its social
center and the monks in their small chapel.
Building on the brick church, with its distinctive twin towers,
started in 1905 when the monks of Assumption (then St. Mary's) Abbey
and local faithful prepared the footings, said the Rev. Thomas Wordekemper
of Assumption Abbey, campaign coordinator.
"The gem of the prairies," as a newspaper writer described the
church that midnight Mass, has been in need of renovation, with
major repairs needed to the structure and electrical systems. A
capital campaign, "Renewing God's House Together," was initiated
to raise the $2 million needed to undertake the repairs.
St. Mary's is one of several magnificent churches designed by Anton
Dohman, including Sts. Peter and Paul in Strasburg and St. Joseph's
in Mandan, St. Joseph's in Devils Lake and St. Anthony of Padua
in Hoven, S.D. These intricate structures were built in tribute
to the faith of the parishioners and the Old World churches and
cathedrals that prairie immigrants had left behind to come to Dakota.
In 1906, the monks built kilns to make the brick for the interior
walls, Wordekemper said. The brick for the exterior was purchased
from a new company just 15 miles east, he said: the Hebron Brick
Hebron brick again will be used for the renewal project, Wordekemper
said. The brickworks has donated all the brick for a new floor for
the body of the church, he said.
Three truckloads of gift brick, 25,000-30,000 bricks, were delivered,
free, this summer by Richardton Manufacturing.
"We are most grateful for this wonderful gift," Wordekemper said.
"Now Hebron brick will become a beautiful part of the interior of
this magnificent structure that has been sheltered from the elements
of North Dakota weather by Hebron brick for nearly a century."
Others pitched in to help, Wordekemper said, including Ken Kreitinger,
president of Richardton Manufacturing, and his crew, who delivered
and unloaded the bricks.
Renovation work began early this November, starting with the wiring,
lighting and sound systems. Pews will be refinished and some rearranging
of the altar and choir areas is planned to allow better sight lines.
The renovation plan is to complete the work in 10 to 12 months,
Work began with a "screwdriver party," and 25 volunteers who unscrewed
the pews and kneelers and removed carpeting, he said.
Some of the side altars have been removed as well as part of the
floor; the pipe organ was disassembled pipe by pipe and the casing
removed, which will be used to make new furniture, he said.
After asbestos is removed from the old steam pipes, the rest of
the floor will be taken out, and work will begin on the 1908 electrical
system. Painting is the final step, he said.
The Blessed Mother, the patron saint of the monastery first named
St. Mary's, is now revealed in a window that hasn't been seen in
90 years, he said.
The window was placed in a prominent spot, which was then promptly
covered up by the pipe organ about a year later, he said.
The capital campaign is still accepting donations, Wordekemper
said; it needs another $250,000 to reach its goal. Wordekemper is
also available to speak to local groups about the project.
Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.