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Renovation Polishes the Prairie Jewel of St. Mary's Church

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 St. Mary's.

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 Company.

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, Wordekemper said.

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.

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