Rev. Msgr. Boniface J. Stuetz
Historical Record of Our Lady of Mount
Carmel Church, Balta, North Dakota
Reverend Monsignor Stuetz, Boniface J. "Historical
Record of our Lady of Mount Carmel Church."
27 April 1938.
Permission to print this text from the Diocese of Fargo,
Fargo, North Dakota
1. History of the place before it had a church. (First settlers,
striking incidents of early history, changes in name of place, etc.)
The district of the present parish of Balta in Pierce County began
to be settled in the year 1899 by German Catholics who had immigrated
to the United States from German colonies in South Russia. Before
the arrival of these German Russian Catholics, the whole region
around Balta was uninhabited and practically no settlers had set
up their abode here. The land was still free and could be acquired
by filing a so-called “claim” with the government.
The German Russian Catholic settlers, after arriving in the New
World, as a rule stayed for a few weeks with some friends and relatives
who had established a new home already. Thus the majority of our
Catholic people had friends in the towns of Eureka, Aberdeen, Ipswich,
all in South Dakota. From there they moved across the border-line
into North Dakota and pitched their tents in what is today Emmons
County and McIntosh County. However, droughts, poor land, and consequently
poor crops induced our pioneers to look for a more promising location
with better prospects of livelihood. Several of the men were, therefore,
delegated as scouts or explorers to the territory of the present
Pierce County. Rumors had reached them that there the land was good
and still unclamied. Amongst those early explorers were Peter Vetsch,
Wendelin Schall, Joseph Hoffart and others. The report of the explorers
was favorable and the new settlement began at once in 1899. The
influx of Catholic settlers kept on steadily until the year 1902,
by which time the whole territory was then practically settled.
It was ever the endeavor of the new arrivals to stay together as
much as possible and to build their new homes near one another,
so that each one could be a help to the other case in need.
Amongst those early sturdy pioneers we find: Peter Vetsch, Wendelin
Schall, Frank Goetz, Joseph Hoffart, Peter Eisenzimmer, Jakob Schmalz,
Clemens Klein, Gabriel and Xavier Sheet, Markus Welk, Karl Voeller,
John, Joseph, Peter, Franz, Martin and Michael Axtmann, George Zacher,
Philipp Schmalz, Rochus Schneider and others. Of these, several
are still living.
b. All pioneers underwent unspeakable hardships and privations.
This so much so that some of them entertained the plan to return
again either to Germany, from where their grandparents had come
or to South Russia. Conditions were more than primitive; conveniences
there were none what so ever. Traveling was carried on with some
rickety wagon and very often with a stone boat which was drawn by
a pair of oxen. Thus, moving from McIntosh County to the present
Pierce County took them over two weeks. It was late in the year;
blizzards overtook them on the open prairie, their only shelter
being a wagon-box and a few blankets.
On their way here several children died and were buried on the lonely
prairie. Weeping and almost heartbroken the pioneers stood around
the graves, which they had a hard time to dig, and recited the Rosary,
blessed the graves with their year and a Sign of the Cross and then
they moved on. Later on they were able to rediscover some of those
resting places and the remains were transferred into blessed ground,
other graves could no longer be found and God alone knows, where
those buried there slumber.
While living in the southern part of the state, the first marriages
took place. As a rule the settlers went to the Indian Reservation,
where Father Bernard Strasmaier O.S.B., took care of the spiritual
needs of the German Catholics. What this meant is easily understood,
if we remember that some families lived some 36 and 40 miles away
from the Reservation and that more than once they walked this stretch
Reaching their destination in present Pierce County at last, the
open prairie was their abode, the sky their shelter and the wagon-box
their only room, until a sod house had been built.
2. Visits of early missionaries. (First Mass, priest, etc.)
Being at last settled on their new homesteads, the main concern
of our pioneers was their faith and religion. A delegation was sent
to Very Rev. Vincent Wehrle O.S.B., then Prior of St. Gaul’s
Monastery near Devils Lake to ask him for a German speaking priest.
Father Vincent, by which name he was then known throughout the territory,
kindly accepted the requests of the petitioners and as their first
priest he sent Father Bernard Arnold O.S.B. Fr. Bernard then visited
the settlers from time to time and under his guidance the first
church in the Fulda district was built. Thus we find that in those
early days services were usually held in the region of the present
In the year 1902, Father John Burger O.S.B. was sent from Devils
Lake to take charge of the Catholic settlers. Services became more
regular. Father Johannes, as the settlers called him endearingly,
took the people to heart. He stayed with them whenever he could
for days on end. He said Mass for them, administered the Sacraments
and, what was the most important thing, gathered the children together
and instructed them in their religion. He helped the settlers by
word and deed in whatever manner he best could.
It is, therefore, no wonder that the name of Father John Burger
should have been kept in reverence and esteem to this very day.
His memory is almost something sacred with the old settlers and
there is no home found which does not display the picture of Father
John in prominent place. It is with touching love and loving gratitude
that the old people speak of Father John’s untiring, unselfish
and self-sacrificing work and labors. Father John Burger O.S.B.
is a member of the famous Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland, from
where Most Rev. Bishop Wehrle had brought him. With Father John
had come also Father Justus Schweizer O.S.B., however, Fr. Justus
only now and then came up here and took the place of Father John.
Father Justus had his field of work in a different direction. Yet
the pioneers also remember him. Today both, Fr. John and Fr. Justus,
are living in Switzerland, whither they returned some years ago.
Before Fr. John Burger build the first church in the Balta district,
Holy Mass was offered in private homes, this mostly in the house
of John Migler. There also the children gathered for instructions.
In the year 1905 a church was built four miles north-west of the
present Balta town. The plan of the settlers was that in the course
of time a little town could be established around the church and
so they gave the site or locality of their church the name: Selz.
This christening was due to the circumstance that several of the
grandparents of the settlers had immigrated to South Russia from
the city of Selz in Germany. Their colony in South Russia had born
the same name and it was to live on in the New World. In this Selz
church, as it was then called, services were held rather regularly
by Father John O.S.B.
Be it remarked here that the above naming of the new locality was
made a matter of importance. Since other names were suggested by
colonists from other towns, the christening was much disputed. To
make matters short the party or faction offering the greatest contribution
towards the church was to win out.
The Selz families raised the sum of $230.00 and came out victorious.
3. Name and occupation of note worthy laymen who aided the missionaries.
All the settlers gained their daily bread by farming; however there
were among them many skillful craftsmen and artisans. Thus we find
blacksmiths, carpenters, wagoners, cabinet-makers, brick-and stone-masons,
shoe-makers and also tailors. Whatever their occupation, they all
cooperated harmoniously and whole-heartedly helped to build up their
new community. Note worthy for outstanding help in those early days
were: Peter Eisenzimmer, Peter Vetsch, Philipp and Jakob Schmalz,
John Migler, Gabriel and Xavier Scheet, the Axtmann families and
4. When did the place become a station, that is a place without
a church, but where Mass was said at stated times?
In the year 1912 the Soo-Line built a railroad through the territory.
Soon the town of Balta began its existence. With the town growing
more and more, the people decided to establish a parish of their
own. This was in 1917.
At once the Catholic people set to work and built a priest house.
The current of thought was: once we have a house, a priest sooner
or later will live in such house. The priest once living amongst
us, the organization of the parish and the building of a church
will follow of itself and be a simple matter of course.
Alas! The new priest-house was completed, but it stood empty for
almost two years. Priests were scarce, especially German speaking
priests, the world war was raging in its fury and good Bishop O’Reilly
was unable to send a priest, much as he wished to do so. Meanwhile
the good people could do nothing but attend divine services in their
old “Selz Church”, 4 miles north west of town. In the
absence of the priest, the people gathered on Sundays in a Pool
hall and there they arranged private devotions. They recited the
Rosary, sang their old religious songs and there they had their
children instructed. The settlers had been so fortunate as to engage
a very good and very capable teacher for their school and this in
the person of Mr. Paul A. Sand. Mr. Sand, a native of Minnesota,
graduate of St. John’s University, had followed the call of
the settlers. His fine course of studies and especially in church
music enabled him to conduct such private devotions as were feasible
and also to build up a choir. Thus he made it his task not only
to instruct the younger generation in the secular branches, but
also in matters of faith and religion. For many years, Paul Sand
was in charge of the school and practically the whole present generation
has sat at his feet. He deserves the gratitude of the whole community
for his work.
The town of Balta was first called “Egan”, but the
settlers fancied such name by no means. Hence they changed this
name into Balta. This name Balta is taken from a rather large and
beautiful city in Bessarabia which to the settlers was well known
since they had either lived in its vicinity or because it had been
their trading post in the old country. The name Selz then was given
up. This also, because in the meantime another group of settlers
had started a town by the name of Selz some 24 miles south of Balta.
The abandoning of the name caused some bitter grief to that party
of the pioneers who at a former date had contributed the greatest
share when the christening of the new site was auctioned off!
All their efforts had been in vain and the sum of $230.00, although
in the end given towards the church, seemed to have been given in
However, Balta was to be the name of the new town and is still
It was Holy Week in the year 1919. The train moved slowly into the
little establishment of Balta. Off the train stepped a priest. It
was Father Philipp Bahner O.S.B. who came from here from St. John’s
Abbey in Minnesota. Father Philipp was the first priest to enter
the new parsonage, now standing for two years. He became the first
resident pastor of Balta. Father Philipp then built the present
brick church. The corner stone was laid in 1919 yet by the late
Rt. Rev. Peter Engl, O.S.B., Abbot of St. John’s Abbey, who
had been delegated to the ceremony by the late Bishop O’Reilly
of Fargo. For some months the basement was used for services, and
then the upper structure was completed. It was later on blessed
by Most Rev. Bishop O’Reilly of Fargo. The church in Balta
is the first brick church in Pierce County and even today is one
of the largest churches in the county. At that time the parish counted
about 43 families.
5. What priests attended the place when it was a station? Where
did they reside? The priests attending the original place were:
Fr. John Burger O.S.B., Fr. Anthony Nussbaumer O.S.B., and Fr. Mathias
Buttala. They had their residence in private homes and then also
in the parsonage of the Fulda parish.
6. What was the nationality of the early Catholic population?
All the settlers of German blood.
7. When did the place first become a mission?
The old Selz Mission being the origin of the parish, it became
a Mission in 1902.
8. Who attended it and from where?
It was attended by the Benedictine Fathers coming from Devils Lake
and later Richardton Abbey.
9. When and by whom was the first church built?
The original church in Selz was built by Fr. John Burger O.S.B.
10. What was the cost of the first building?
The Selz church is said to have cost about $1,600.
11. Was the location of the church ever changed at any time?
In the year 1919, the town of Balta having founded and the settlement
in and around the town getting stronger and stronger, the old Selz
church was given up. The new church in Balta was built and the parish
at last was transferred to its present location in Balta. This transference
did not come to pass without some friction and serious misunderstandings.
However, in the course of time the whole congregation saw the wisdom
of transference and everybody felt content.
12. Give dates of construction and cost of succeeding church buildings.
The present parsonage and church were built in 1917 and 1919 respectively.
Both buildings represent a value of about $50,000.
13. What happenned to former structures?
The old Mission church four miles northwest of the present church
was broken down and the material was partly used for finishing and
improving the new church; partly it was sold.
14. Approximate the number of souls when established as a Mission.
The old pioneers claim that there were not more than 150 souls
when they began the church out in the country.
15. Date when place was established as a parish with a resident
Balta became a fixed parish with a resident pastor in 1919.
16. Approximate the number of souls when established as a parish.
In 1919, so it is asserted by the old settlers, the congregation
counted about 300 souls.
17. Names of resident Pastors.
a. Rev. Philipp Bahner O.S.B. 1919-1923.
b. Rev. Meinrad Seiffermann O.S.B. 1923-1927.
c. Rev. Msgr. Boniface J. Stuetz 1927 - 1956 (In 1950, Fr. Boniface
Stuetz was invested with the robes of a Monsignor.)
Owing to the building of new church and parsonage, the parish suffered
under a heavy financial burden. However, through the splendid work
and the financial genius of Fr. Meinrad Seiffermann, the debt was
almost paid when the latter was transferred to Minnesota. Greatest
praise is due to Fr. Philipp and especially to Fr. Meinrad. The
latter should be remembered as the "Savior" of the Balta
parish! This also in a spiritual direction!
18. Give names of laymen who rendered notable services to the parish
at any time and the nature of their services.
Among the outstanding laymen of the parish must be mentioned Mr.
Paul A. Sand. Born in Minnesota, he had made his course of studies
at St. John’s University. He graduated in 1908 and then followed
a call of our Catholic people here in the same year. He was engaged
as teacher in the school and as organist and choir-master in the
church. His education well fitted him for such task. For many years
Mr. Sand taught school and directed the choir at services. In all
those years he had the welfare and interest of the community at
heart and placed his full strength at its disposal. His advice also
in civil and material matters is something which cannot be expressed
in human values. Twice the County has elected him a member of the
Legislature, where he served as chairman of the most important Committees.
At the same time Mr. Sand took a very active part in the life of
our Catholic organizations, serving as President of the State League
of the Catholic Central Verein for two terms. His services were
requested by other boards and Commissions of the State. Thus it
must be said that the parish of Balta cannot be thought without
the kindly and ever helpful personality of Paul Sand. May God bless
him for his kindness and generosity and reward him. Financially
and by donation of labor the parish was greatly assisted by the
Wilhelm Schaan, Valentine, Mathias, Sebastian, Joseph Schaan, John
Job, Rochus Eisenzimmer, John Reinbold, Peter Fettig, Peter Vetsch,
Xavier Goetz, Mike Schneider, Gabriel and Xavier Scheet, Jakob Schmalz,
Clemens Klein, Mike Schall, Anton Klein, and Ferdinand Senger.
As faithful and loyal trustees have served in the years gone by:
Anton Klein and Valentine Schaan, Mike Schall and John Krim, F.J.
Axtmann and Joseph Schaan, Joseph Schaan and Frank Hagel, While
Ned Axtmann and Vincent Schaan, the present trustees, follow the
footsteps of their predecessors and ever try to be a help to both
pastor and parish. For some years, the janitor-work was done free
of charge by several members.
19. What stations were once attached to the present parish, but
have been given up, or became missions or parishes?
A small mission station existed in the town of Fillmore, 12 miles
east of Balta, but it was given up, because the people felt that
with the automobile they could easily attend services here in Balta.
The little church was then sold and the profit handed over to the
20. What stations are now served from the Parish?
21. What missions were once attached to the present parish, but
have either been given up, or have become missions to some other
parish, or are now parishes?
Outside of the above mentioned Fillmore, there was none.
22. What missions are now served from the parish?
23. Present Church Building:
a. Date of construction, cost, architect, contractor, pastor.
The present church, erected under Fr. Philipp Bahner in 1919, was
built according to plans furnished by an architect and engineer
whose name we could no longer detect.
b. What is its seating capacity?
The church seats about 300 people.
c. Later additions and improvements? (Give cost and dates when
In 1928 the new sanctuary was added thereby the church remarkably
enlarged, the tower or steeple was remodeled and built higher, a
basement chapel for the winter was arranged, new pews, new side
altars, electric lights and fixtures were installed, in 1938 the
inside of the church was painted and varnished.
The cost of all these improvements was about 10,000 dollars.
The Sisters of Mercy from Devils Lake are in charge of the Public
School. They teach in both grades and high-school. The first principal
was Sr. M. Aquin, the present Mother Superioress of the Mercy Convent
in Devils Lake. Sr. M. Berchmans is acting as principal at the present
27. The present parsonage erected in 1917, was built according
to plans of craftsmen amongst the parishioners. Its cost was about
Episodes, experiences, remarkable events, as related by pioneers
of the present Balta Parish. Father John and Jakob Schmalz trapped
It was the fourth day of March 1906. Mr. Jakob Schmalz, one of
the sturdy settlers of the Balta District had driven with his sleigh
to the railroad station to get Father John Burger O.S.B. for services
in the old “Selz Church”, which stood four miles north
west of the present town of Balta. Fr. John O.S.B. had come from
Devils Lake, where he resided in St. Gaul’s Monastery.
It was a bright and quiet winter day, not a cloud in the whole
sky. Briskly the fiery horses trotted over the frozen prairie and
lustily the sleigh glided over the snow drifts. While driving the
priest and his friend, the farmer, engaged in a peaceful conversation.
Traveling on, neither of the two men paid much attention to the
road or environments. Trusting their good team of horses, they were
sure that they would reach their destination the same as on former
Suddenly and unexpectedly, without the least warning, one of the
terrible blizzards, as they occur on the Dakota prairies now and
then, started up. In a few short minutes our travelers were enshrouded
by a terrible storm. Gales of snow drifts and howling wind made
seeing impossible. Everything was at once blotted out of sight,
this so much so that not even the horses or the sleigh were any
longer visible. Not suspecting such blizzard and having paid little
or no attention to road and settlements, they soon did not know
where they were.
For some time they let the horses take their own course and route,
but soon they came under the impression that also these animals
had lost their track. And thus the frightful reality of being lost
in a snow storm dawned upon the priest and his companion. There
they were on the lonely, thinly settled prairie, perhaps far away
from their destination. In the end, they decided to unhitch the
horses and wait the abating of the storm. But what a long time of
waiting it meant and what a gruesome experience laid in store for
In order to have some protection against the stinging wind blasts,
they turned over the sled box and crawled under it. The horses mean
while had turned loose and had shifted off for themselves. The upturned
box served as a haven for awhile, but soon the biting cold began
to penetrate and stung into the two men under the box.
Hour after hour passed. The priest and the farmer recited their
beads loud, over and over again. Hour after hour they tried to keep
their courage alive. They sang hymns, talked and tried every possible
means to keep the cold away. Slowly, slowly but surely they felt
their worst enemy creeping into their shelter: drowsiness!
It was the drowsiness of certain death by freezing! Both felt like
falling asleep and never to awake again! However, they also realized
that they were now in imminent danger of death. Valiantly they fought
off the terrible temptation. When one was on the point of falling
asleep, the other would stir him up. So the hours went on end, they
At last they decided to get out of their shelter, alas; they found
that they were prisoners. The snow drifted and had piled up over
them in high dunes. It was impossible to get out and free themselves.
All hope seemed on the wane, but still they struggled on. Outside
the night had passed and morning had come since some hours. A farmer
who lived nearby stepped out of his house in the morning, and to
his surprise saw the end of a neck yoke sticking out of the snow.
Not remembering that he had left a wagon outside, he went to investigate.
Climbing the huge snow drift he came upon the upturned sled box,
he heard voices underneath. Working swiftly, he cleared the snow
away and helped our trapped prisoners out of their threatening tomb.
What a surprise for Father John and Jakob Schmalz! All these many
hours they had not been more than 50 feet away from the farm house
and looking further they saw the steeple of the “Selz Church”
about a quarter of a mile in the distance!
Their courage and bravery and last but not least, their trust in
God’s providence and the help of the Blessed Mother, had saved
their lives.This near tragedy is evidence of the courage, but also
piety and intelligence of the early pioneers.
Today Jakob Schmalz enjoys telling his experience with Father John
His everlasting refrain in telling the story is this:
It was the most frightful night of my life, but I thank God for
it. In that night, I came to know what a good pious priest is and
I had a perfect insight into the beautiful and devout soul of that
priest. If anyone wishes to know the true character of a priest,
let him come to me and I can tell him.
Saying this, our friend Jakob drops his ever present smile and
tears fill his eyes!
2. Purchase of the first bell for the Selz Church, near Balta.
The Catholic settlers had built under the guidance of Fr. John
Burger O.S.B. their first church four miles north west of Balta.
They called the locality the Selz church. Everything was pretty
well finished and the church was fairly well equipped, but a bell
was still missing. A bell the settlers would not miss, its chimes
should brighten the lonely prairie. But there was little or no money
to buy one.
Amongst the settlers was a well to do rancher by the name of Jakob
Scheet. He stood up after church on a Sunday and announced that
he would donate his best steer towards the purchase of a bell, provided
the parishioners would auction it off. The offer was accepted. On
the next occasion the husky animal was led into the ring of the
assembled settlers, the bidding began and became so heated that
in the end the sum was rather high. It was plenty for the bell.
And so today the old pioneers remark smilingly: A steer had to pay
our first bell!
3. How household and kitchen goods were bought.
Say the old settlers: In our early days we knew nothing of government
help and there was no “Relief”. Yet we needed clothes,
flour, a few pounds of sugar and what not. Also, then it was a nice
thing to have just a quarter of money in the pocket. What did we
do? For days we roamed over the prairie and collected the bleached
bones of the buffalo. These we brought to the store which was far
It took days and days to collect a load, which meant a wagon box
full. For a respective load we received from three to nine dollars
worth of groceries and these groceries we had to get in a store
which was 35 miles way from our settlement! And we got along and
we were healthy and strong!
4. Babylonian confusion and language.
The railroad was building a new road. Our German settlers were
given an opportunity to work. All the other workmen already engaged
were also of German origin and hailed from every German realm between
the Danube and the North Sea. Our German Russian settlers were consequently
thrown together with these sons of the Fatherland. Alas! The Swabian
had a hard time to understand his brother hailing from Westfalia
and our German Russian settlers could understand neither of them.
A meeting was held and it was decided that an interpreter should
be elected. The lot fell upon our old pioneer Peter Vetsch, now
in Balta. Mr. Vetsch had been raised near the Black Sea and had
seen a good deal of school. He was supposed to understand all the
different dialects. However, instead of making matters better, things
became worse. When the interpreter spoke of cheese, the others understood
chalk and the end was an incomprehensible jargon and confusion.
Yet, they worked together in all harmony and peace! Time proved
to be the best teacher and interpreter in the long run!
5. Traveling in the early days on shank’s pony!
While homesteading near the South Dakota border line it was found
that commodities were getting rather short. There was no team or
wagon to be had. So the settlers dispatched three of their strongest
and bravest men to town to buy the necessities. However, the next
town with a store was 75 miles away. They were compelled to make
this stretch on foot. Each one armed himself with a strong club
and the march began. After the first days journey they reached an
old straw stack and they decided to use it for their nights quarters.
Tired and weary they soon slept soundly. In the middle of the night
one of them awoke and heard a noise. “A snake, a snake, a
big snake, wake up!” he yelled into the dreary night. At once
our three heroes were on the alert, jumped out of the straw and
grasped their ominous clubs. Ready for any emergency they stood
around the old straw pile the whole night as if riveted to the ground.
Whether it was determination or will power, none of them dared make
a move. However, snake they saw none. When at last morning dawned
they got the surprise of their lives! Near the resting place of
one of our heroes, a little prairie mouse crept out of the straw
and squeaked lustily in the cool morning air.
Seeing their enemy, their trance was broken and without saying
one word, they started upon a fast and steady run until the straw
pile was out of sight. Then they stood and looked back with frightened
eyes upon the spot of their nightly adventure. Marching on they
at last finished their journey of 75 miles! However, before returning
home each one pledged himself to keep absolute silence so as not
to become the laughing stock of the whole settlement. But since
humans are human, the vow was broken some way or other and the event
made the round from Dan to Bersheeba! He who has the scath has also