Strasburg's Historic Church Sts. Peter & Paul

Coomber, Jim and Sheldon Green. "Strasburg’s Historic Church Sts. Peter & Paul." North Dakota Horizons, Winter 1997.


For additional information about Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church and Strasburg, North Dakota, consult the following sources: 1) A Brief History Of The People And Parish of Saints Peter and Pual Church, Strasburg, ND, 1989; 2) As We Reminisce: Strasburg, Emmons County, North Dakota, 1967; 3) Moments to Remember, 1976; 4) Saints Peter and Paul Parish Golden Jubilee Book, 1948; 5) Saints Peter and Paul's Parish Centennial Book 1889 - 1989: Strasburg, North Dakota, 1989.

When you visit the Welk homestead several miles northwest of Strasburg, tour guides, some of them relatives of Lawrence Welk, will likely tell you how his parents, Ludwig and Christina (Schwahn) Welk, arrived in the Strasburg area from the Ukraine in 1892. The Welk family had lived in four Strasburgs: in Alsace-Lorraine, the Ukraine, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. Also on this farm the flies were so bad in the summer that nobody was allowed to go into their sod house until after dark.

We and three students working with us on a research project, Erin Conroy, Amy Kjesbo and Greta Smolnisky, took the tour of the Welk farm one June day. "My grandparents came to this country with hardly anything," explains Evelyn Schwab, "only the clothes they were wearing, a prayer book and an accordion that had been in the family for generations."

Evelyn leads us through the Welks' home, a sod house that was later faced with siding, like many sod houses in the Strasburg area. The interior is simple, suggesting the struggles of pioneering on the plains. But we also see signs that the Welks were people who appreciated the finer things in life-an old organ, a set of china Lawrence gave his mother for a birthday present, and yes, an old accordion.

We are struck, too, by all the objects of religious devotion: crucifixes, pictures of The Last Supper, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and a verse on the kitchen wall that begins with "Christ is the Head of this house."

Worshippers gather for weekday mass. Morning mass is a good time to see the interior of Sts. Peter and Paul, with its statues, stained glass windows and ceiling murals.

Click on the photo to view a larger image!

Right: For nearly 900 years, stained-glass windows have been designed to teach religious truths. This window features the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Left: A small section of the stained-glass window of St. Stephen.

With Evelyn still in the lead, we climb the outside stairs to the attic in which Lawrence and his brothers slept. She points out nails in the rafters on which the Welk boys hung their clothes and on which their father dried corn in the fall. We look out the window, over the prairie to the east, and there is Strasburg, with the church steeple rising above the town. The scene must have reminded the family of villages on the vast steppes of the Ukraine, small German colonies centered around a church.

In his autobiography Lawrence Welk remembers Sundays and his father saying, "It is God's day, and we will honor Him." He recalls the family struggling through blizzards and 40 degrees-below-zero temperatures to attend Sunday Mass. Elaine Wald tells us that years later, even after the Welks had a car, if the snow blew too deep, they would hitch up a team of horses to the sled and head for church. "They just didn't feel right if they didn't go to church on Sunday," she added.

The steeple they saw as they looked out of their windows to the east epitomized one of the reasons Strasburg-area pioneers came to the New World: freedom to practice their Roman Catholic faith.

Regional historian Katie Wald explains that most of the Strasburg area people descended from southern Germans who left Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries for the Black Sea region of the Ukraine, where czars had promised them free land, freedom of religion, exemption from military service, and the right to maintain their German language and culture. When political changes threatened these freedoms, many left the Ukraine, beginning in the 1870s, for the Great Plains of North America.

Sts. Peter and Paul Church, an example of Romanesque architecture, resembles some churches in Germany and the Ukraine. "Rhennish helm" atop the steeple is a common feature of churches along the Rhine River in southern Germany.

Click on the photo to view a larger image!

Looking over the rolling plains from the Welk farm, we remember that it was near here that a group of scouts-five young men from the Ukraine-arrived in September 1888 to check out the land. What they saw was a largely treeless expanse that resembled the steppes of Russia. They also must have seen a lot of potential, for the following May they returned with a large group of families from the Ukraine. Like other immigrants, they found life on the Great Plains a challenge as they contended with drought, grasshoppers, extreme cold and loneliness.

That loneliness was partly the result of the Homestead Act. Homesteading provisions were generous in offering claimants title to a quarter-section of land with few strings attached. But one of the provisions of the Homestead Act stipulated that these settlers had to live on their land. So people who had been accustomed to living close together in little villages in the Ukraine found themselves spread out across the land in the Dakotas, isolated from one another, a situation seemingly designed for loneliness.

A legendary priest of the Dakotas, Father Bernard Strassmaier, was the first of a series of missionary priests to minister to central Dakota Catholics. He was a Benedictine serving the Sioux at Fort Yates, about 20 miles to the west, across the Missouri River. Father Bernard made the rounds of numerous frontier communities in North Dakota and South Dakota, remaining in one place long enough to say Mass, hear confessions and baptize babies.

The first Sts. Peter and Paul church was built at Tiraspol, northeast of present-day Strasburg. But in 1902 the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad spiked down its rails two and-one-half miles southwest of Tiraspol, where a community soon grew up, which was named Strasburg. In 1906 Sts. Peter and Paul Church was moved from Tiraspol to Strasburg. All that is left at Tiraspol today is a few graves marked by iron crosses, an art form that is unique to the Germans from Russia.

As Germans from the Ukraine, especially from the Strasburg area of the Ukraine, continued staking claims around Strasburg, N.D., Father Alois Strigl, O.S.B., made the rounds of his immigrant parish to determine how much support there was for a new and larger church. Some pledged money. Others agreed to work on the new structure. A few pledged their cattle.

At the Welk farmstead, Evelyn Schwab points out a place in the exterior where the facing boards have been removed, exposing the sod. Straw still sticks out of the blocks of sod made by Ludwig Welk and perhaps some neighbors more than 90 years ago. We are reminded that while these immigrant pioneers were still living in humble earth dwellings, they were building a magnificent church, in old European style, of brick and stone and stained glass.

Like their ancestors for centuries before them, these people believed in going without beautiful homes in order for their community to have a magnificent church. In many European communities the church was considered the "living room" of the village.

Building a church in the Dakotas was somewhat like Christians of the Middle Ages building a great church in Europe. There the faithful might work for centuries on a single church. But at Strasburg it was only a little over a year after the basement had been dug that the people were celebrating Mass in their new church, on Christmas Eve, 1910-only 22 years after the first immigrant scouts had come here and surveyed open prairie.

The Strasburg church was built in a Romanesque cross-shape design. The building measures 120 feet long and 50 feet wide (but 70 feet wide at the transept). Its single steeple is about 85 feet high. As parishioners who have travelled to Europe note, Sts. Peter and Paul is similar to some churches in southern Germany and in the Black Sea area of the Ukraine.

Fr. Maximilian Speckmeier, priest at Strasburg from 1910-1918, noted in his parish history that the total cost of the church was $45,000-a lot of money at the turn of the century. Despite some poor crop years after 1910, it did not take long for parishioners to pay off the mortgage. In fact, the priest noted that a number of parishioners were even exceeding their pledges.

Today, entering Sts. Peter and Paul Church is like interrupting a dress rehearsal for a play, with actors and actresses frozen in their assigned spots. Just inside the front door, child-size angels hold basins of holy water. Over the baptismal font a figure of St. John the Baptist is baptizing Jesus. Above the high altar is a crucifix, depicting Jesus dying on the cross. On one side stands Mary, his mother; on the other side is St. John, the Apostle. Standing to the left of the high altar, St. Peter holds the keys to the kingdom. On the right, St. Paul preaches a sermon. Mary and Joseph pose with the baby Jesus. At least 10 angels of various shapes and sizes stand guard around the high altar. Many other figures stand nearby, atop the old-fashioned confessionals and around the pulpit, looking at us, all seemingly stopped in time.

The stained-glass windows display dramatic moments of their own. In the Garden of Eden the serpent approaches Adam. In the Epiphany window the shepherds and wise men come to pay homage to the baby Jesus. In the Pentecost window the artist shows early Christians sitting in a group, apparently oblivious to the flames rising from their heads, marking the Holy Spirit descending upon them. Other windows present other scenes: St. Ann poses with her daughter, Mary, and St. Agnes stands beside a lamb.

We notice that saints in the windows on the west side are women but that on the east side they are men. Even the two angels holding dishes of holy water at the church entrance fit the overall pattern: the angel on the right has a blue robe; the angel on the left is dressed in pink.

Elaine Wald explains that it was German-Russian custom for women and children to sit on one side of the church and for men and older boys on the other. "And they were still doing that when we moved here in 1958," she recalls, "and for a few years after that."

Berthold Imhoff, an immigrant artist from Germany, painted four large murals, including this one of Jesus raising the dead, on the ceiling of Sts. Peter and Paul in the late 1920s.

Click on the photo to view a larger image!

The architect of Sts. Peter and Paul's Church was Anton Dohmen, a native of Germany who immigrated to the United States in the 1890s, where he settled in Milwaukee and practiced architecture for many years. His churches follow the Romanesque and Gothic patterns in style at that time. He made it possible for pioneers on the Great Plains to have beautiful churches similar to churches many of them had been accustomed to in Europe.

Like the design of the church itself, the windows were also done by a German immigrant who, like architect Dohmen, had settled in Milwaukee. Karl Riemann also designed the windows for Dohmen's churches at Mandan and Richardton.

Father Leonard Eckroth

We meet Father Leonard Eckroth, pastor, who gives us a tour of Sts. Peter and Paul. The windows, beautiful though they are, are not there just to look nice. Father Eckroth reminds us that centuries ago, in European churches, the stained-glass windows were intended to teach people who could not read or understand much of the Latin Mass. Even today, he believes, these windows serve a teaching function, especially for children.

In European churches it was common to include some object in the stained glass window that indicated who gave the window. Fishmongers might sponsor a window depicting St. Anthony, who was said to have preached to the fish. They might even include a fish in a window. As we looked closely at the Pentecost window at Strasburg, we could make out a sheaf of wheat. We suspected it was given by a farmer as a prayer for good crops.

Left: These small statues atop the baptismal font show St. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus.

Right: A common statue in Catholic churches has been the Pieta, a figure of Mary holding the body of Jesus after he was taken down from the cross. In the Strasburg church, the Pieta sits on an altar with a bas relief of Purgatory.

Click on a photo to view a larger image!

The large window on the west side of the church is a triptych of the Epiphany. Notice the shepherds and the wise men coming to pay homage to the Christchild.

Click on the photo to view a larger image!

We look up at the ceiling and see more artwork; four large murals by Berthold Imhoff, an immigrant artist from Germany, Farther Eckroth explains, who wandered the plains of North Dakota and Canada in the 1920s and 1930s, painting scenes in churches as well as in some business buildings and homes. Imhoff imitated some of the great European painters like Raphael and Van Eyck. Thanks to Imhoff's work, the faithful on the Dakota plains were treated to the kind of art one might see in European churches.

Imhoff was a religious man. Apparently when he did paintings in a church, he would often turn his commission back to the parish. Ellen Coordes Woods of Linton, whose father worked for Imhoff on the ceiling of the Strasburg church, estimates that those ceiling murals at Strasburg were done around 1928, when her family moved to Emmons County.

Father Eckroth identifies the theme of each mural for us: the conversion of Saul to St. Paul, Jesus preaching, Jesus raising the dead, and St. Peter receiving the keys to the kingdom.

From the ceiling also hangs an elaborate crystal chandelier, which would have been a familiar touch in 18th century churches in southern Germany.

Architects at the turn of the century often used one basic building design and adapted it to individual situations. This is the way Anton Dohmen seems to have worked. St. Mary's and Assumption Abbey Church at Richardton, built just a few years before the Strasburg church, is an example of his large church. The Richardton church is one of the few churches in the country shared by a monastery and a parish.

Like Sts. Peter and Paul at Strasburg, St. Joseph's at Mandan and St. Joseph's at Devils Lake are examples of Dohmen's medium-sized church. Although the churches at Mandan and Devils Lake have been updated in the spirit of Vatican II, they still bear close structural similarities to the Strasburg church. The Mandan and Devils Lake churches are dated 1904 and 1906, respectively.

A church like Sts. Peter and Paul in Strasburg is one response to the human need for a sacred place. The plains might be lonely and the winters unbearably cold, but Catholic settlers could look to a place where God was more than anywhere else. An inspiring church could also be a tangible link with home towns in the old country. Churches like these gave people faith to endure their difficult lives as they established homesteads and communities and a new civilization.

Today, too, a church like Sts. Peter and Paul at Strasburg can help answer our spiritual needs, reminding us that our lives are connected and that we are part of a great story.

When you go to Strasburg

Strasburg is located less than 20 miles from the South Dakota state line on U.S. Highway 83, 51 miles south of the U.S. 83-Interstate 94 interchange at Sterling. Sts. Peter and Paul Church is open during the day. Mass is Sundays at 10:30 (9:30 a.m. summers), 8 a.m. Monday through Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday. The Welk farm, located two and-one-half miles northwest of Strasburg (watch for signs on U.S. 83), is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 15 to Sept. 15, with a charge of $3 per person.

You will find the people of Strasburg hospitable and understandably proud of their heritage.

For further reading . . .

An illustrated book by Coomber and Green, Magnificent Churches, is forthcoming from the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies and will include information and photos of the Dohmen-designed churches at Mandan, Devils Lake, Richardton and Strasburg; and at Hoven, S.D.

Other reading that focuses on the Strasburg area includes Katie Welk's comprehensive history of the Strasburg and Hague areas, Hague Area Book II: The Past 100 Years and Its People (1989), available from the author, who lives at Strasburg; Father P. Justus Schweizer, O.S.B., The Prairie Schoolmaster, a history of the early days of Strasburg and Sts. Peter and Paul Church, as related primarily by an early priest and translated by Martha Bernhardt (available from Father Leonard Eckroth); and Father George Aberle's From the Steppes to the Prairies (1963), which includes a history of the Catholic Church in central and southwestern North Dakota, available at the Varsity Mart bookstore at North Dakota State University in Fargo. For information about the life of Lawrence Welk, including memories of early years in Emmons County, we recommend Wunnerful, Wunnerful: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk by Lawrence Welk with Bernice McGeehan (Prentice-Hall 1971).

North Dakota Horizons Home Page Reprinted with permission of North Dakota Horizons

North Dakota Horizons magazine is published quarterly by the Greater North Dakota Association in conjunction with the North Dakota Tourism Department. Subcriptions are $15 for one year or $28 for two years. To subscribe, or for more information, write PO Box 2639, Bismarck ND 58502; or call 701-222-0929; or link to the Horizons web site at

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller