Conducted by Bob Dambach (BD)
17 August 2001, Karlsruhe, North Dakota
Transcribed by Peter Eberle
Editing and proofreading by Peter Eberle and Reverend Marvin Hartmann
Prairie Public Collection
BD: What is your name?
JS: My name
is Joseph Senger. My dad was also a Joseph. Of course we always
went by the name Joe. I was born on the feast of St. Joseph and
that is really how I got my name Joseph. It was a custom for Catholics
to take the name of the Saint of the day. Many of us got our name
depending on which day we were born.
BD: Where were you born?
JS: That is a very difficult
question when you ask me, “Where I was born?” because
I was born in the town of Kandel, which later was changed to Orrin.
Kandel is a town in Russia and also a town in Germany in Elssas-Lorraine.
I was born in Orrin, but I prefer to say in Kandel because that
is the old German connection with my parents—Germans from
BD: Why do you think they
changed the name to Orrin?
JS: The church was built out
in the countryside because there was no town when the church was
built and only after railroad came did they start a town. Either
the first postmaster or the first depot agent had the name Orin
and so that is how the town got its name.
BD: What are some of your memories growing up in
JS: We lived on the farm and had a really wonderful
time. We always had pets. We had ponies or colts every year. We
had calves, chickens, and dogs and so we had an awful lot of activity
and were quite busy as we were growing up. Of course we had to
work too. Those are the things that I really enjoyed and even
though we lived on a farm we were only two blocks away from the
church. The church, in many ways, was the center of our lives.
We had a difficult time when we were playing ball because we were
considered to be farmers, but if the town kids had a better team
then we said we were from town and played with the town team.
If the farmers had a better team, we’d play with the farmers.
BD: How many children were in your family?
JS: There were eight living children (one died).
I am about in the middle.
BD: Did your parents come from the Ukraine?
JS: My father was born in Stassburg in the Ukraine.
We always say in Russia, but today we have to say it’s in
the Ukraine. He came over with his parents. He was nine years
old when they came over on the ship.
BD: Where did they settle?
JS: They settled in Orrin. My grandfather was out
on the farm and later on he became a butcher in town, but he was
a farmer. The children all grew up on the farm.
BD: (A35 either How about your mother’s side?
or Where did your mother settle?)
JS: Her name was Thomas and she was born and grew
up in Selz, North Dakota. Her mother and father died when she
was a very young child. I should say, rather, that the father
remarried and he died very young and so she was raised by a grandfather
who simply took them in (her and another girl) without every legally
BD: They were German-Russian as well?
JS: Yes, at Orrin. I never knew my mother’s
parents at all. In fact, she didn’t know them.
BD: Growing up, you must have been surrounded by
people (A43 who were very encouraging?)
Oh yes. Everybody in Orrin, except one man, was a German-Russian
Catholic and so we all had very similar backgrounds. Even the
kids who lived in town were half farmers, too, because most of
the time they were over at our place on the farm where all the
BD: As you have grown up and
reflected upon growing up in a German-Russian family, compared
to other families, were there differences growing up German-Russian?
JS: Well, it was very evident
when we started school because we could probably speak some words
of English, but we normally and automatically spoke German. Of
course in school we had to speak English. If we spoke German we
were punished (had to write or stay after school). When we were
out playing ball we would shout in German, but when we went into
the school we would have to speak English. Thank God that the
teachers had patience with us and taught us English.
BD: Were you ever punished
for speaking German?
JS: Oh yes. Yes, that was
common. If the teacher came out to the playground and heard us
talking German, we were punished for speaking German. We were
supposed to speak only English in school.
BD: Did your father (A57 and mother speak English
JS: My father spoke very good English. I didn’t
realize until one of my seminary friends came to visit and my
mother gave him directions to where I was working out on the field;
when he came out there he said, “Your mother talks funny,
I couldn’t understand her.” I didn’t realize
that she had such a bad brogue. She spoke English, but apparently
with a very strong brogue. They both spoke English.
BD: Did your dad ever talk about growing up in the
Ukraine (A63 or?)
JS: My dad and his brothers and sisters, when they
visited, spoke a lot about growing up in, as they say, in Russia—in
the Ukraine. They had lots of stories about their childhood and
they always talked about the great crop they had in the Ukraine.
Orrin has rather poor soil and is not a very productive land or
area. So they often talked about the beautiful crops they had
at home. As they said, “at home in Russia”—“Da
ham in Russland.” They often spoke about that.
BD: Did they ever mention (A70 …the games
they used to play…)?
JS: I don’t recall that they talked much about
playing games, although obviously they did. I guess I learned
that mostly from reading, but I don’t recall they talked
much about that. I know that my father spoke about coming over
on the ship and the people would come selling milk (I don’t
know it, but they had the Russian word for it). The kids would
run up and down the ship and shout, “milk, milk” in
Russian and the people would come out of their doors wanting to
buy milk, but of course the kids ran away and hid. I remember
that story that he said about coming over on the boat.
BD: Did your father speak some Russian as well German?
JS: He didn’t, but my grandfather did. Actually,
they grew up in a very German area and everyone spoke German.
However, the elders had to do business in Russian. Most of them
spoke some Russian. I know that my grandfathers spoke Russian
BD: Do you think they were happy that they made
the move from Ukraine-Russia to the U.S.?
JS: From all the stories that I’ve heard,
they were very happy that they came to the United States. Even
though they had such beautiful land over there (much more productive
than it was at Orrin), I never heard them talk about regrets that
they had come.
BD: When would they have come?
JS: My parents and grandparents…rather my
father came over in 1909 and so they were sort of a little bit
late among the immigrants from Russia. By that time it was almost
stopping (the immigration).
BD: How come the picked North Dakota and the Orrin
JS: They picked this area to settle because they
had relatives here already or people whom they knew and so they
settled near people they had known from Russia. I don’t
know who came over first, but I’m sure they had relatives
who were here and they came where the relatives were.
BD: So they would feel very comfortable settling
in these communities?
JS: Yes, because there were many Germans already
there. I guess the reason they settled there is because that was
sort of the last land that was available. All of the rich land
seemed to have been homesteaded already. The Orrin and Blumenfeld
areas are known to be very poor farming areas.
BD: As we were driving up here you were talking
about farming; I sense that you still feel farming in your blood?
JS: Oh, I love farming very much and I observe nature.
I watch the crops grow when I drive over from Velva to Karlsruhe.
Everyday I would try to check how much the crops grew, when they
were sprouting, when they were starting to turn, getting kernels
and so forth. One of the things that a lot of farmers didn’t
know is that the sunflower does follow the sun when it is a young
plant. In the evening, the plants and the leaves will turn west.
However, once the sunflower head forms, it remains turned toward
the sun (the east). Most of the farmers didn’t know that.
I learned that from driving over from Velva to Karlsruhe every
other day. I observe nature very closely.
BD: There was something else that you said that
once every season you need to (A115 feel the crops)
JS: Yes, for instance, when I smell the cutting
of hay or when I smell the threshing, it is a very beautiful sensation.
Especially when they are cutting sweet clover because it has such
a strong aroma. I love that when it comes into the car when you
drive by a place where they had cut sweet clover.
BD: We were talking earlier about farming, have
you seen a lot of great changes since you were a boy on the farming
and helped farm yourself?
JS: Oh yes, immense changes. We, of course, had
horses when I was a child and we did all of our farming with the
horses. One of the things that I remember was plowing and I couldn’t
get the plowshares into the ground. I would pull and pull to try
to get them down. They wouldn’t go in because the ground
was so hard, so I had to turn around and start over again. We
would walk along behind the plow and smell the fresh earth. That
is so vivid in my mind. In the springtime when they are cultivating
(there is very little plowing now) I love the smell of the earth.
When we finally got a tractor, it was actually during the war,
it didn’t have any rubber tires (it had steel wheels) because
the rubber was too scarce. Then we sold most of our horses. I
can recall when they loaded our horses into the trailer or truck.
We were standing in the kitchen window and crying. My mother and
us kids were crying as they loaded up our favorite horses to take
them away—traded in for the tractor.
BD: So the horses were actually traded in?
JS: Yes, traded in as a part payment for the tractor.
BD: When you think about your dad, what comes to
JS: Well, he was a big husky man. He gave us a lot
of directions and he was very insistent that we carry out his
directions properly. If we made a mistake, he really became quite
upset. I remember one time I had to go out (I was still a young
kid); we had a gasoline engine pumping water out on the pasture
and we were out of gas. I came home and the tank was empty; there
was no water in the tank for the cattle. I came home and he asked
me if I filled the tank. I said “Well, no because we were
out of gas.” He was really, really furious. We were just
eating and I said, “Well, I’ll go right now.”
He said, “No, you sit down and eat and then you go.”
Of course I got on my pony, took some gas out, and sat out there
all afternoon waiting for the tank to fill up. So he was very
insistent. One time I was plowing with the tractor. (He was very
serious about having a straight furrow). One time I fell asleep
on the tractor and I went across the field instead of down the
furrow. He came out and he was furious. But anyway, we had lots
and lots of fun even though we worked very hard.
BD: Would your dad play with you at all? Did he
have time to play with the kids?
JS: We played ball a lot, but he didn’t join
us playing ball. Maybe throw the ball just a little bit, but he
didn’t take part in the games. I know some other fathers
were very popular baseball players and they would play with their
kids, but our dad never really did play games with us.
BD: Did he live a very hard life?
JS: In the beginning, they had a very difficult
time because of course they went through the thirties. I was born
in 1929, so I experienced all of that. He found it extremely difficult
when we couldn’t have a crop (payments and so forth). We
didn’t realize that we were poor because we always had lots
to eat. We had chickens, hogs and cattle. We always had plenty
food, but no money. I know that was a great burden to him that
we had such poor crops, but I didn’t realize we were poor.
I thought that was the way life is and we always, always had plenty
to eat. I guess the only time when we realized we were poor was
when it was time for school and we had to get new overalls to
wear for school. We couldn’t wear them to work, but we had
to save them just for school and church.
BD: Would your dad have gone to school (…A169)?
JS: Yes, he went to school, although I don’t
think that he finished eight grades. He was a rather sharp man.
I know he was very, very good with regard to figures. He would
figure out in his head how many bushels of grain we would hold
(or a wagon). He was very sharp in that way. He’d read;
we always had the paper. We got the Grand Forks Herald. I don’t
know why we didn’t get the Fargo Forum, but we got the Grand
Forks Herald when I was I a little kid. I remember we always had
the paper, so he liked to read.
BD: What was your mom like?
JS: My mother was a very mild person. When she had
her second child she had some difficulty with the child. She always
had a hard time doing her work. However, after the second child
she still had seven other children. (One of them died in infancy).
We had to help her a lot…like with doing dishes or even
with cooking. My brothers would be the cooks. The oldest one would
help with the cooking because she couldn’t lift things.
I don’t know how the world she ever managed to have the
children. The children were all healthy, but she was kind of feeble.
I think she was probably a sort of delicate young person. Whether
the death of her parents affected that, I don’t know, but
she was very mild. Although she was very pleasant, my father was
a very talkative, sort of gregarious type of person. She was much
more mild and I would say much more pious. I think that piety
we got from our mother more than from our dad.
BD: Could you talk about the importance of religion
to your family when you were growing up?
JS: We were close to the church spiritually, but
also physically because we lived only two blocks away. When I
was very small, I was an altar boy and so I was around the church
a lot. We would go to the church and play around there and of
course we would go to services (Mass and other services regularly).
We had one very young priest who played with us a lot (we had
ball games). We enjoyed church life very much. Especially two
of our pastors were close to the young people. We had a lot of
fun around the church. We didn’t find it such a burden to
have to go to church. We enjoyed going to church, although sometimes
we complained too. We had a lot of fun around the church; in fact,
the church was sort of our social life apart from playing baseball
BD: When did you realize that you had a calling?
JS: I think at a very early age. One of our pastors
encouraged us to stop in the church and pray. He said our Lord
is present in the tabernacle on the altar and go and visit with
him, so I did that when I was very young. When I was in the fourth
grade we had to write a little paragraph about what we want to
be when you grow up. I said when I grow up I want to be a priest.
Of course the teacher ran and told the pastor right away. Then
I regretted that I wrote that. She was an old maid, but a wonderful,
wonderful teacher. She never married, but her whole life was in
teaching; she was a marvelous teacher. She kept encouraging me
and asking me, “Do you still want to be a priest?”
However, when it came time for high school, my father said we
can’t afford for you to go to a high school seminary and
so I went to school in Balta, the neighboring town. Only as a
senior in high school did I go to Richardton with the intent that
I would want to continue to study to become a priest. So I had
the calling, or the feeling very young.
BD: What was the name of that teacher?
JS: Irene Korbe
BD: Were you able to see her after you became a
JS: Yes I did. In fact, I saw her after she was
retired. She was a very old woman. She was in the nursing home
in Jamestown and I made it a point to stop to see her all the
time. She wrote to me and I suppose I was her teacher’s
pet you might say. She was always concerned about me. She wrote
to me when I was in the seminary. In many ways she affected me
like a Nun or a Sister would—a religious. Sometimes I felt
she was clinging too much to me, but I think she felt that she
was the one who was leading me and guiding me into the seminary—and
she really did have a profound influence.
BD: How did your parents feel about your calling?
JS: They were glad that I wanted to be a priest,
but they thought that it was very expensive. I know my dad said,
“Well, we’re spending all this money and it’s
all wasted if you don’t become a priest.” Every fall
he gave me a hard time when I said I have to go to school now
and you have to give me some money for tuition. He said, “Well,
what if you don’t finish?” So he gave me a bit of
a hard time in that way, but they were very pleased that I wanted
to be a priest.
BD: Were they able to see you ordained?
JS: Yes, my parents lived to see me ordained. At
that time my mother was already kind of sickly. In her old age
she was stooped over, but she was very healthy in terms of being
there for the ordination. It was a very big celebration. Of course
for them it was a big undertaking to go all the way to Fargo from
Orrin. We were ordained in the Cathedral in Fargo.
BD: Where did you go to seminary?
JS: I went to school at Richardton, ND, but only
for one year as a senior. Then I went to St. Johns at Collegeville,
MN, but another young man, who stayed with our pastor at the time,
went to St. Paul seminary and so the pastor said, “You are
going to St. Paul with Jerry.” I went to St. Paul the last
two years of college and then four years of seminary.
BD: Where is St. Paul seminary?
JS: St. Paul seminary in St. Paul, MN. I was down
there just maybe a month ago and they totally modernized the chapel
and I don’t like that. It looks too modern and doesn’t
have much of a religious spirit, although they say it’s
a beautiful liturgical space, which is the in thing—to have
a liturgical space.
BD: When you were growing up did you ever get to
leave Orrin? Did you visit any big cities?
JS: No I never went away from Orrin at all. Going
to Richardton was the first big excursion. I think I went to Devil’s
Lake once or twice with my parents, but they traveled very little.
I had three uncles and three aunts who all moved to Devil’s
Lake and they would always come home to visit their parents and,
of course, my dad, the brother. We hardly ever went to visit them,
but they always came to Orrin. We never went anywhere (maybe we
would go to Rugby, the county seat, but even that was rare). I
never went away from home. I was never to any big city at all.
BD: How large was Orrin when you were growing up?
JS: When I was growing up, Orrin was probably 300
people. The big population was out on the farm, because every
half-mile was a farm. At that time it was thickly populated. The
church at Orrin is quite large and that would be filled up twice
on a Sunday. I would say there would be close to a thousand people
there (children and adults) when we were young.
BD: How large is Orrin today?
JS: Today there are only four houses inhabited in
Orrin. Four families living there and it really looks like a ghost
town. So many of the houses are standing with all the windows
out. I always recommend that they should be burned down and plow
up the different blocks and grow grain or grass.
BD: Is the church still in operation?
JS: The church at Orrin is still in operation. It
is taken care of by a pastor from Balta. The pastor in Balta takes
care of Balta, Orrin and Fulda. When I was a child there was a
pastor in each of those churches plus a pastor at Blumenfeld.
So there were four resident pastors and they were very, very busy
with large congregations. I would say each of those churches had
approaching a thousand people and now one priest takes care of
the area that used to be four active churches. The church at Orrin
is very small (probably 50 families). At Fulda less, and Balta
a few more.
BD: What do you say about (A300)
JS: I always compare it to the churches in Russia
where they had these great big, beautiful churches and they were
all turned into granaries, garages and machine shops because they
were the strongest buildings in every town. The buildings are
still there; they are a hundred years old. I shock people when
I tell them that the churches at Orrin, Karlsruhe, Balta will
one day be empty, because people are just moving away from the
farm. I dread to think that twenty-five years from now this church
where we are now won’t be in operation in twenty-five years.
I am very sad. I’m too pessimistic about the fact that we
are losing too much population in the rural areas. When I think
of the activity and how our life centered on the church when we
grew up—it simply is not that way anymore. We don’t
have the people; we don’t have the young people so there
simply isn’t that much activity.
BD: Why don’t we take a little step back in
time. Where was your first assignment after the seminary?
JS: After I was ordained on May 1, 1954 (I have
to tell you normally priests are ordained in June, but that year
was a special holy year so our bishop went to Rome in June. We
were ordained about a month early, which was a little bit unusual,
so we left the seminary a month early; I hope I finished my tests
before I left). After I was ordained, I was assigned to Bottineau.
In those days we were simply assigned; the bishop simply said
you are going to Bottineau. At Bottineau was a priest who had
been there 54 years when he died—Msgr. Andrew who was a
true Frenchmen from France—kind of an aristocrat, but he
came over because there were a lot of French speaking people around
Bottineau and Dunseith. They actually had a parish in Thorn, which
was also a country parish, and then later the parish was moved
to Bottineau. He had been a priest about 50 years and he didn’t
want any assistant. He didn’t want any priest there because
he felt he could do everything alone. I came to the door with
my brand new suit, my two black suitcases, and my brand new hat,
I rang the doorbell and he greeted me, but he didn’t invite
me into the house. He said, “No house is big enough for
two priests, you go over to the Sister’s in the hospital
and they’ll find a place for you.” So that was my
introduction; he was really a tough guy. He was tough on the outside,
but rather like a marshmallow. He actually owned a farm and he
had one of the people farm the land. One day we drove out to where
he was plowing and he said, “How is he doing?” and
just to make conversation I said “Well, he could plow it
a little more straight” because that was a big thing of
my dad. So he drove right across the plowed field in front of
the tractor and stopped the tractor and he says, “Fr. Senger
is a farmer and says you should plow straighter.” After
that I didn’t express my opinion too vocally. After a while
we got a long very well and I enjoyed it very, very much being
with him. Of course that was my first parish and naturally I was
popular because he had been there for 50 years and so a young
kid on the street was rather interesting to the people. I think
they really prepared me for my priestly life, in a sense, more
than the seminary. We learned a lot in the seminary, but I learned
a lot of the practical life of a priest in Bottineau. They were
BD: When you went to become a priest, did you know
that you would be coming back to ND?
JS: When we become priests we always belong to the
diocese or the bishop in which we live. Since I lived in the Fargo
diocese, it was simply understood that I would be a priest of
Fargo. It’s rather difficult to go to a different diocese.
However, a priest can choose to become a member of a religious
order like the Benedictines at Richardton, or at St. John’s
in Collegeville, or Dominicans, or Jesuits. If we decide to be
what we call a diocesan priest, we must belong to the diocese
and bishop where we live.
BD: So there was no really drive at all to end up
in Missouri or Texas?
JS: No, not that at all. However, since I was in
two Benedictine schools, I really wanted to be a Benedictine.
When I was at St. John’s that was my hope and my desire.
Then my pastor said, “You’re not going to be a Benedictine,
we need you here in the diocese of Fargo.” Of course it
wasn’t just his decision, but I really would have liked
to be a monk and to be at St. John.
BD: Do you have any regrets about your decision?
JS: No, I really don’t. I’m glad that
I became a diocesan priest. I’m glad I did and now I can
see that my priesthood, the way I see it, dealing with people
is much more to my liking that to be in a monastery with 50 or
100 other priests--probably being a teacher or so. I very much
like being with people and being the pastor of a parish. I like
that very much.
BD: What were some of the other towns that you were
JS: I was stationed at several different places.
I was the secretary to Archbishop Meunch when he was the Vatican
ambassador to Germany. I was in Germany for about three and a
half years and then a year and a half in Rome, because while he
was in Germany he was made a Cardinal, so I went to Rome with
him. I was very young, only two years a priest, but he always
wanted to have a priest from ND as his secretary. I went to Germany
and we lived there (our embassy was also our residence--a fairly
large residence). I lived there and I enjoyed it very much. One
of the things was that we spoke German, kind of a colloquial German.
I had to learn to speak proper German. Especially at our dinner
table, when we were having a conversation in German, they would
often laugh at my use of words. I learned very quickly to speak
fairly decent German.
BD: How did you get selected for that honor?
JS: Well, it was mostly because I could speak German,
even though it wasn’t school German (I never studied German).
I was a German and they felt I would fit in. Also, my predecessor
recommended me to go there, but also because he knew I was German
and could speak German and thought I was a pretty nice guy that
could fit in.
BD: When you were selected for this position, was
the bishop here in the Fargo diocese at that time?
JS: No, he was living in Germany and had been in
Germany already for quite a few years because he went to Germany
immediately after the war. The Holy Father asked him to go to
Germany to make an assessment of all the different diocese’
and religious orders—it was right after the war. He said
that it would probably take you six months. He did this, he drove
to visit every bishop and made his report to Rome and said, “Well,
I finished my work and want to go home.” Then the Pope said,
“Well, we want you to stay a little bit longer.” He
stayed longer and longer and when Germany became an independent
country it was simply assumed that a Vatican person would be sent
as the Vatican ambassador to Germany. However, the Holy Father
appointed Muench who, in a sense, didn’t have the diplomatic
background and people were surprised that he was appointed as
the official ambassador. I think he worked very well and it was
probably good, in a sense, that he wasn’t a professionally
trained diplomat because he related very, very well with the German
bishops and they had a very high regard for him. I think his folksy
way really endeared him to the German bishops. They were shocked
when he told them that when he would go on a Confirmation trip
he would go half a day earlier and go hunting before Confirmation.
That shocked the German bishops. They thought that wasn’t
proper for a bishop to go hunting, but he enjoyed telling his
BD: After that assignment, where were you next?
JS: After I came back from Rome (I was in Rome a
year and a half and that was also a very wonderful experience),
I went to Milnor in the southern part of the state. There the
Bobcat was being built, not in Milnor but in the next town so
a lot of the people were working at the Melroe factory and they
built the Bobcat. The man who invented the Bobcat was one of my
parishioners who lived, not in Milnor, but in Sterim nearby. That
was a very, very good experience. Of course I was still young
and being my own pastor, my own boss, I enjoyed that very, very
BD: Was that the first time you were a pastor?
JS: Yes, because when we are an assistant it is
a different approach, you help the pastor. We have the desire
to be a pastor, to be on our own (all of the young priests do).
BD: (A479 …) Did you have another assignment
JS: After Milnor I went to Knox, which is very close
to my home. I was there for seven years and enjoyed that very
much. Then I went to Grand Forks to St. Mary’s church. That
was a rather difficult time. It was soon after the Vatican Council
when things changed. The pastor, who is a wonderful, wonderful
pastor, restored the church of St. Mary’s and took out the
marble altar, took out all of the beautiful, beautiful statues
and it turned out to be very barren. One of the ladies said it
looks like a courthouse. There was a lot of resentment for taking
out a lot of the beautiful Italian karara, marble altar. We also
had a school and at that time the school population declined and
Catholic schools were closing, in fact, the Catholic high school
at Grand Forks had closed earlier. I was there at St. Mary’s
fifteen years and we really brought the school back to life. I
felt very comfortable about my pastorate there. I enjoyed it very
much. There were quite a few different nationalities there, a
lot of people like Polish and Bohemian who came down from Minto
and Walsh counties and moved into the big city of Grand Forks.
We had the university there and had contact with professors. We
had several professors in our parish and it was a very good connection
with the university.
BD: Then after that ( A509 where else)?
JS: Then I went to Velva and to Karlsruhe. I suppose
in a way those were the best years of my life. I was here for
fifteen years (I am now retired for one year). I enjoyed it very
much and I felt very close to home. I’m just 50 miles from
my home and my brother still lives on the farm at home at Orrin.
I like to go there and look over the cattle, the crops and see
that he is doing everything right. These last years have been
very, very good years for me.
BD: So you completed a circle?
JS: Yes, the experience in Europe was good, but
I wanted to be a pastor. I didn’t want to be a career person,
so I asked to come home to be a pastor in ND.
BD: (B1 …German-Russian)
JS: Yes, although the German-Russian aspect isn’t
that strong anymore. I like to talk German and most of the people
don’t like to talk German, but with the old-timers I always
say a few words in German. I enjoy that, but there isn’t
that dramatic difference in a totally German-Russian area. For
instance, when we look at Karlsruhe, which is considered to be
strictly German-Russian, yet in terms of a parish it isn’t
much different from Velva where there are far less German-Russian
people. I think the German-Russian element is slowly drifting
away. I regret to see that and I regret to see people not teaching
their children at least a few words of German and now that I have
been over to Russia myself, I am surprised at how little these
German-Russian people know about their parents and grandparents
and many of them don’t know what town their parents or grandparents
were born in. So many people say they were born in Oddessa, and
virtually none of the German-Russians were born in Oddessa. They
were all born in the villages near Oddessa. I like the German-Russian
atmosphere, but in terms of a parish, it really isn’t that
different from any other place that I’ve been.
BD: Lets talk about your trip to (B15 Russia or
the homeland), what were some of your expectations and what were
some of your impressions?
JS: Unfortunately, I looked upon Russia sort of
in terms of Siberia. I looked upon it as a rather harsh land and
landscape and probably some of that came from Bishop Werth, who
is the Bishop of Siberia. However, I remember from my childhood,
my parents always said we had such beautiful crops at home in
the Ukraine (although they always said at home in Russia). I was
very, very surprised and very pleased to see the beautiful vegetation.
As soon as we got to Oddessa, the trees! Every street was lined
with trees and many of the streets had arches; the trees meeting
on top--so beautiful, beautiful; and the vegetation, I was impressed
so much with that. When we saw the fields and the crops, I finally
realized why our parents said we had such beautiful crops. Things
grew so well in the Ukraine.
BD: Was there any sort of connection that you felt
when you got up there?
JS: When we came to the villages, I felt like I
was almost visiting with my grandparents because to be in the
place where they lived and to see the houses in which they lived,
I felt very, very emotional. I felt like I was in contact, especially
with my grandparents, because my father was quite young when he
came. I related much more to the grandparents and their style
of life was still like the way they lived in Russia. When we came
to the villages I was very, very moved to realize that my parents
and grandparents went to this church and worshipped here, that
was a profound influence on me. I am still affected by it and
I associate so many things with my trip to Russia and I tend to
talk often about our ancestors who lived over in the Ukraine.
I think the churches (really, really the architecture) influenced
and affected me so much. I had no idea that they were so large.
Even though I had seen pictures of them, I had no idea they were
so large. Most of the churches are almost a block long and to
realize that these churches were filled with our grandparents
and our ancestors affected me very profoundly. Of course we had
the great privilege of having the Mass in the church of Selz.
That church was considered to be the most beautiful of the churches.
It was called a Basilica, which sort of indicates that it was
an exceptional church, and that church was not locked up like
nearly all of the others—it was open, a person could go
in. Obviously there are no doors or windows in it. In this beautiful,
beautiful building we did have a Mass there. I think I was more
moved by that Mass than any other liturgy I’ve ever had.
What affected that time so much was that there was one lady who
was 90 years old (a German from Russia) who had not been to church
for 60 years and this was the first time that she was able to
attend our service, our Mass. It was deeply, deeply moving, because
she was like the many people who went to Siberia, hadn’t
seen a priest for 50 years, 40 years. That was very moving for
me to be able to have a Mass with that lady present, because that
tied together several generations and the different countries.
Our parents and uncles often talked about the grapes. I couldn’t
understand how they could grow grapes, because the country was
basically the same as ours in terms of latitude and weather. However,
practically every house has a trellis with grapes growing up the
trellis. Then fields of grapes; I’ve never been in California
so I have never seen these flat grape fields. The only grape vineyards
that I saw were on the banks of the Rhine River in Germany and
of course there were very steep hills, but this was on flat ground
and probably a hundred acre fields. I’d never seen that
before and to me that was very moving to see grapes grow so beautifully.
Of course there they have crops like we do here: corn, potatoes,
and wheat; and grapes. The grape fields were just interspersed
with the other fields.
BD: Did you see them milking their cows at all?
JS: Yes, we did. We saw several people leading their
cows home, but we also went by a pasture and several people were
out in the pasture milking cows. There were several older ladies,
but also a young kid was milking a cow. We stopped; I would’ve
wanted to go in to visit with them, but we were in hurry. That
was very touching. From that pasture, several people were also
leading their cows home to take them home to the barn I suppose,
or to their yard. Yes, we saw them milking cows out on the pasture.
There was a team of horses there with maybe five or six young
kids, they seemed to be having a gay time and I noticed one of
the kids was milking a cow.
BD: The way the villages were put together there
must have been different (…B80) than in ND where the farms
are so far apart?
JS: Well, what surprised me most of all was that
we never saw one farm as we consider a farm. The fields were very,
very large and all of the people who worked on the farm lived
in the villages. When I flew home, I looked over from the airplane
and could see a farm every half-mile, every mile in the more populated
areas. I thought since they had freedom in Russia that there would
be these many little farms, but that’s no the case. The
farms, in many ways, are continued in the same way as they were
under communism. They call them cooperatives, but they’re
really owned by the government of the area and the people work
for the government. Virtually, nobody owns a farm as we understand
it here. Of course the villages are much more populated than it
is here in ND and to see villages two miles apart that’s
a way we look at farms in ND. About every place in ND you see
a farm there would be a village in Europe in most of the countries
because it is so thickly populated.
BD: When you were a child growing up did you have
a lot of traditional German-Russian foods?
JS: Oh yes. We had many things made out of dough.
I suppose that was the cheapest thing to make with flour and water.
We had cheese buttons, Halupsi, sour kraut, and all of that and
I still love it very much.
BD: What would be your dad’s favorite helping
if your mom was going to make something special?
JS: I would say roast chicken. It seems every Sunday
we had chicken soup, and chicken and mashed potatoes. That seemed
to be our meals every Sunday. Of course we had pigs and beef so
we always, always had plenty food. We were healthy; we ate well.
BD: Did your (B104 family) make your own bread?
JS: Oh yes. We had an incident with my brother.
My oldest brother had to make the bread because my mother couldn’t
knead the dough. He was making bread and my mother was sick in
bed and so a neighbor lady came over. He had just made the dough
and his hands were all sticky with the dough and so he wouldn’t
let her in the house. He put his foot by the door and he said,
“Our mother isn’t at home.” Well, the lady knew,
of course, she was home in bed, sick, but he was ashamed to see
his hands full of dough. She could tell that and so she said,
“Ok, Ok, I’ll come back later and visit her.”
First my oldest brother helped my mother a lot and then my second.
My third brother became the official cook helping my mother. She
always directed, but they had to do the work. They had to butcher
the chickens, peel the potatoes and all that.
BD: Did they do any canning?
JS: Oh yes, canning was a big, big thing. I remember
as a young child we always had a big 55 gallon wooden barrel full
of melons (pickled watermelons and also a barrel of sour kraut).
Our mother would say, “Go down the cellar and get some sour
kraut,” or “Go down the cellar and get some pickled
watermelon.” Of course later on we didn’t have the
barrels. They pickled things in the jars. We also had salted meat
in a barrel. It was salted and also frozen and so we’d have
to go pick out some beef or mostly pork that we had in the barrels.
BD: What would have been a
special treat when you were growing up as a child?
JS: A special treat would
be to be able to go for ice cream. We very rarely went to town
and so we didn’t go to town to have a Dairy Queen or an
ice cream. However, on the fourth of July there was always ice
cream and even us kids made our own ice cream in the winter. Practically
every Sunday night we made ice cream. The kids in town came over
to our place and we’d chop the ice out of the tank where
we had water for the cattle and made ice cream. I suppose that
was my favorite. Also, some of the cooking like Blachenda, which
was made with dough again, but inside they would put the pumpkin.
Then they always made some with apples and so we always had to
eat the ones with pumpkin with the soup first and then we could
have, for dessert, the apple Blachenda. Another thing that I still
love very much is the Halupsi (pigs in the blanket). That’s
my favorite. Usually when the kids come home from college or the
married kids now come home to the family, usually the mothers
have to make Halupsi (pigs in the blanket) or some of the other
dough dishes like Dumplings and the different kinds of noodles.
They were able to create things out of nothing but just flour
and water and we thought it was really, really delicious. Of course
we baked bread. The kitchen table was full of loaves of bread
(we baked bread once or twice a week).
BD: Is that a smell you miss?
JS: Oh yes, yes. Now that they have these machines
for baking bread, when I go into a house and smell that, I immediately
think of home and the kitchen and the bread.
BD: You grew up in a German-Russian family and German-Russian
community and pastored at parishes that were German-Russian, what
are some of the traits that you think are unique or strong in
JS: Well, they have a reputation for being stubborn.
I think it probably isn’t stubborn so much as determined
and I would say hard working. They work very, very hard. I think
even the ones who go to college tend to work very hard. It is
something that they grew up with and for me all of the German-Russians
were farmers and so I associate hard work with the Germans from
BD: What is your opinion on if they were religious
people or not?
JS: I think the Germans from Russia are very religious
people and very pious people. Possibly, some of it was because
they had so many hardships. We had two generations of real suffering
and one generation of things going really well. I think some how
or other that affected them. In Russia they were isolated in the
sense that they had their own villages and so there, too, their
lives centered around their church. I think they have a deep affinity
to the church and to God. I mentioned earlier because of hardship,
but I don’t want to say simply because times were hard that
they were religious. I think they were religious when times were
good too. I do believe that they have a deep religious spirit
in them. Now, unfortunately, we see it disappearing, like in all
other, with the younger generation. I just feel that there is
a stronger affinity to the church among the German-Russians than
BD: One of the things I’ve noticed, (B177
what made me think about it as you mentioned the church), I saw
that whether it be the Catholic Church or the Protestant church
or some other sect that it seems as a group?
JS: Yes. I do think that as a group they have that
and I think now especially of the Mennonites and how deeply religious
they are, but of course they have a closed society and they stick
together, in a sense, much more and their religion is very strong
to them. I would say the same thing for Lutheran communities,
but obviously I’ve been associated with the Catholic communities.
I do think there is a spirit of religion present in a way that
one doesn’t see in some other nationalities.
BD: Have you ever experienced, I don’t want
to use the word animosity, but some reluctance of the different
religious groups of the Germans from Russia that they settled
over there in certain areas, some of it based on religion. Have
you experienced any of that?
JS: Yes, I’ve experienced some kind of difference
or slight hostility, although as a child I virtually had no contact
with any other religions. However, I have sensed that and I know
that one of the pastors, a very venerable Lutheran pastor, said
that he was down in Napoleon and he said that there were very
few Catholics and most of the Catholics were the rough necks (the
young kids were the rough necks), and I thought that wasn’t
very true. I sense it when I speak to Germans from Russia and
they say, “Well I’m a Lutheran.” There is a
slight distance there because my whole association has been with
the Germans from Russia as Catholics and as I grew up I think
I thought all the Germans from Russia were Catholics and of course
I realized there are more Lutherans than Catholics. But yeah I
sense that even today, I wouldn’t call it a prejudice, but
BD: When we went on the first tour in ’96,’
the thing that surprised me the most was we got on the bus in
Ukraine, we were going up to Odessa, and without even talking
to each other all the Protestants sat in a cluster and all the
Catholics sat in a cluster. I think there was something (208-09
going on…areas of ND) that just had to do with which was
the group they wanted to sit with). You also got to visit Elsass,
JS: Yes, we were in Elsass on this last trip and
that too was very moving. I know that my great grandparents came
from there and we were in Reidselz, which was the hometown from
which they immigrated to the Ukraine. I thought that there you
could find some markers in the cemetery or monuments, but of course
I realize that they bury people like in the same grave every twenty-five
years and so we really didn’t find any really old markers
whatsoever. What was really disappointing was that we did not
find one Senger marker and yet there were several families of
Sengers who left from there to go to the Ukraine. I was disappointed
by that. I could also see the many small fields and farms, which
is part of the European scene. Sometimes, like when we were there
they were hauling hay, although with the tractors, but you would
see the cow. It seemed like the “old days” and the
small villages just as they were 2-3 hundred years ago. What surprised
me was that there were so many half-timbered houses. I didn’t
realize that; I thought there was much more of a Bavarian type
of building, but most of them were half-timbered houses in that
BD: Did you feel any of the connection that you
felt when you were in the Ukraine?
JS: Yes, I did. We went to the church in Reidselz
and I realized that my great grandparents worshipped there and
I felt an affinity there. I had my camcorder and I took quite
a bit of footage of that church. Actually not a very beautiful
church really, the exterior, but I had a strong sense that I was
close to home. They also had a grotto right beside it (what they
call a Lourdes grotto) made of rock and we had almost the identical
grotto at my home parish in Orrin.
BD: Was this the church on the main street with
the big circle with the glass windows?
JS: No, no. I think maybe you’re thinking
of Selz, but this is Reidselz. My parents came from Reidselz.
I don’t know what that word means, Reidselz, but it’s
different. The church is not very artistic. Big, square church,
but not very beautiful really in terms of architecture. It is
really enclosed by other buildings; it’s not freestanding.
The front of the church where you enter has barely enough room
for a car to drive by. I suppose no cars are allowed there, maybe
a hearse. Then there was a school right beside it so it was really
crowded. The way it was in former centuries. Now they’re
trying to make a bigger space around the churches in Europe, but
this one is very hemmed in.
BD: We just talked about churches (B250…cemeteries)
one of the things that is really striking about the cemeteries
in this area and many of the parishes that you were associated
with, were the iron cross grave markers that are on many of the
graves here. If you could just talk about maybe your first memory
of seeing one of these crosses, what these crosses might mean
to you. When you look at them what do you feel?
JS: The iron crosses are very, very, special to
me and I feel they have a much more religious significance than
the granite monuments. I would like to have an iron cross made
for myself (even though I already have my granite monument standing
up at Orrin cemetery). It seems like it’s closer to the
heart of religion; that the people who made them had a much more
personal influence. Now when you buy a marker it is strictly business,
like buying a car. When they were homemade there was something
personal in them. Even with the people who bought the cross from
the blacksmith, there was a much more personal element and I sense
that very much that there is a closer affinity, identity with
the person who is buried there and with the family that remains
behind. I look upon the iron cross as having a much deeper meaning
than the granite monument we see today.
BD: When we go out to the cemetery later (B274…)
are there any crosses that caught your attention or that you are
JS: In a general way, I would say that many of the
iron crosses have a similar basic frame, but then they have all
of these different leaves and curly cues so that hardly any two
are exactly alike. In the Karlsruhe cemetery, there is one grave
that is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. I’ve heard about
the people who made it, but I don’t recall the story of
it or which family has it, but it is a very ornate wrought iron
fence around the grave. Then there is another cross at the far
end of the cemetery that is a cross, but has a shield over it
almost like a half moon. I don’t know if that has any significance
or is simply protection from the rain. In my own mind I wonder
whether there is a Moslem influence, because the half moon is
a Moslem symbol. In the Ukraine there sure were some Moslems so
I don’t know whether that is an influence or not, but it
is a unique cross.
BD: Occasionally in cemeteries we see a cross, not
always iron, but a cross that is just right on the edge of the
cemetery. Why would that be?
JS: Some of the crosses or the graves are on the
edges of the cemetery and that appears to be the case here in
Karlsruhe. I suspect that those people were probably not Catholics,
or were Catholics who weren’t practicing their faith. It
was the custom to bury someone outside the cemetery limits years
back. I suspect that those crosses that are set apart were either
not Catholics, or they were Catholics who were not practicing
BD: If someone who committed suicide, they would
not (B304 …be buried…)
JS: Suicide was considered an expression of an atheist.
A person who committed suicide was thought didn’t believe
in God. Of course today we are told a different approach to that,
but in years past, decades past, a person who committed suicide
was not buried in the cemetery, but rather on the edge of the
cemetery. Now it’s unheard of because we wouldn’t
consider a person who commits suicide to be mentally effective,
BD: When you visit a lot of the cemeteries you also
see (B318 …a very sad image, lines or rows of various crosses
of iron crosses that were infants and children were separated
from the cemetery as well).
JS: The custom was to bury infants in a special
area. I can see that in the early days when the people came here
so many of the infants died in infancy or as young children because
of disease and so I think they deliberately had them on the side
in a special place. I wouldn’t consider that to mean they
were not part of the group, but I think simply because the infants
had smaller markers. There were different markers for the infants
than for the adults, so I don’t consider that to be ostracizing
them as in the case of a suicide.
BD: In your family, do any of your relatives have
iron crosses on their graves?
JS: No, my grandparents had a granite monument and
I regret that. When people became more prosperous they felt it
to be a sign of prosperity if they could buy either an iron cross
that was molded or pay granite costs and so in later years it
was considered to be only the poor people who had an iron cross
because they couldn’t afford a better one and that of course
was very unfortunate. It would have really been good if they would
have continued with the iron crosses because they were made by
people of the area, blacksmiths of the area.
BD: Did you know any of these blacksmiths?
JS: Yes, we had one at Orrin and we’d watch
him make crosses. This is little different, but my grandfather
also made coffins and we would love to sit in his workshop and
smell the shavings; I can still smell it. When I walk into a place
where they are sawing lumber or fixing cabinets, I go back to
my grandfather’s workshop where he’d make coffins.
We sat there and watched him and just inhaled the smell of the
wood. But anyway, with regard to iron crosses, we had a blacksmith
who made the iron crosses and we would watch him fashion them.
BD: Would it take awhile for him to make the crosses?
JS: In terms of time, I honestly don’t know.
I would consider that a blacksmith could make a cross in a couple
days because the basic frame would be the same, but then the decorative
things. Since everything was made with iron, they would just heat
up the iron and bend it as they wish, or sometimes you see what
appears to be like spears or arrows or even angels and of course
they would be flattened out on the anvil when the iron was hot.
So I think a black smith could make a cross in a couple of days.
BD: When you are the cemetery, do you see any specific
religious symbols that might attract attention?
JS: With regard to the iron crosses, quite a few
of them have angels fashioned by the blacksmith and always a cross
apart from the frame of the cross, but sometimes you see hearts
on them and spears (I don’t know if they are spears or leaves)
Sometimes there is a thing that looks like a flower. I have a
hard time picturing a specific iron cross, I just think of them
in general. I have difficulty now to recall a specific iron cross
that’s very vivid to me.
BD: What does it mean for you to be of German-Russian
heritage now in the year 2001?
JS: To be of German-Russian heritage in 2001 is
something very important to me. I feel very strongly that we are
losing a very special part of our heritage by being sort of melted
into the general American scene. I wish that we could keep alive
more of our German-Russian heritage. I see that especially after
visiting my cousins who lived in Siberia for 50 years and have
now gone to Germany, they live in the city of (B405 Kumpletz).
They are so strong in their German-Russian way of life, their
love for the church and their close affinity with one another,
but of course part of that is because they, too, feel isolated
from the rest of the Germans. I wish that we would have something
like that because when I visited with them I had the sensation
that this is just the way it was when my uncle and aunts would
come to visit. They seemed to be so close and they shared so much
and shared a lot of their religion too. I think we’re losing
something very precious by allowing this all to slip away and
to be just simply Americans. I regret to see this German-Russian
influence just fade away. As the German-Russians are being spread
throughout the world, I somehow look upon them as having a special
mission from God to spread the love for God, to spread the depth
of their convictions wherever they live. I’m very much aware
that we cannot live in little isolated communities and I don’t
consider that to be healthy either, it was at one time, but certainly
not now. I think there is something deep in the religious convictions
that Germans from Russia have that they can, as it were, share
with other peoples. It seems that their religion is very strong
and their faith is very deep and I’d like for us to be,
as it were, apostles, and be sharing our faith wherever we live.
It was so evident when we were on this tour with some people coming
from California, Kansas, Arizona, from so many different places,
which indicates how the German-Russians are spread all over the
country. We experience that now when we have funerals here in
Karlsruhe, all of the children come back from California, from
Washington, and Oregon and from all the states and it seems they
have really lost much of that spirit. I regret to see that, but
I also realize that we are living in an age where we obviously
have to be integrated and working together in every way, but I
wish we could retain some of our German-Russian virtues and qualities
that are really good and wholesome.
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