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:
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
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
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
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
||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
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).
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota Horizons
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