Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church Features in Presentations in Bismarck, Strasburg

Burke, Allen. "Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church Features in Presentations in Bismarck, Strasburg." Emmons County Record, 25 July 1995, 1, 4.

Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church of Strasburg was one of five churches in the Dakotas featuring in a program presented July 15 at the Germans from Russia Heritage Society convention at the Radisson Inn, Bismarck, and July 17 at the church in Strasburg.

Presenters of “Those Magnificent Churches: A Crowing Achievement of German Russian Immigrants” were Dr. James Coomber and Sheldon Green of Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn. The program was sponsored by Concordia College and the North Dakota Humanities Council.

At Strasburg, the program was hosted by the Das Schwarzmeer Stammhalter Verein Chapter of the Germans from Russia.

The churches were selected because they shared a common architect, Anton Dohmen, a Bavarian who immigrated to Milwaukee, Wis., in 1892. Dohmen designed many Catholic churches in the Midwest as well as Lutheran churches and churches for other denominations.

In addition to the Strasburg church, Dohmen designed St. Mary’s at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, St. Joseph’s in Mandan, St. Joseph’s in Devils Lake and St. Anthony’s in Hoven.

“Part of what makes these magnificent churches so special is that they were built by German-Russian immigrants who were living in sod houses at the time,” Coomber said. “That strikes us as a miracle.”

He said the churches signify the immigrants’ desire for a better world in America.

Coomber said Bishop Martin Marty, the first Catholic Bishop in Dakota Territory, was concerned that homesteading immigrants would lose their faith since there were no priests in the areas of the territory being settled in the late 1800s by German from Russia.

Richardton Abbey at Richardton, N.D., was established by Fr. Vincent Wehrle to assist in the ministry to immigrants as well as Native Americans. Coomber said the original monks homesteaded to get land to help fund the monastery. “They expected the land to produce income,” he said.

Coomber said the thinking in that period of history was that the Dakotas would become as populated as Pennsylvania, with 8-10 million residents. He said the abbey was built with that in mind.

When the Catholic Germans from Russia began to arrive in the Dakotas, their devotion to their religion was evident in the numbers who became priests and nuns. “They become the best hope for the Catholic Church in what was then described as the ‘New World’ of the West,” Coomber explained.

Coomber speculated that Fr. Wehrle and Architect Dohmen may have come into contact because Dohmen’s ad in an 1899 Catholic publication from Milwaukee was a center of German Catholicism, it had much influence on German settlements in the Dakota.

Wehrle and Dohmen began a business relationship that lasted for many years and that was marked by interesting exchanges in correspondence in which Wehrle frequently pleaded poverty to bring Dohmen’s prices down. Coomber said it is believed that Dohmen made very little, if any profit on his design of the Dakota churches.

The first Wehrle-Dohmen project was St. Joseph’s in Devils Lake, which was started in 1906 and completed in1910. The church was close enough to being finished that Christmas Eve services were held in the church in 1908.

“In all five churches, Dohmen applied a Romanesque style,” Coomber said, “that featured circular windows, semi-circles, rounded arches and churches shaped like crosses.”

Dohmen designed small, medium and large churches with the Richardton and Hoven churches being considered large and Strasburg, Mandan and Devils Lake, small.

Coomber said it must have been comforting to the immigrants to have familiar European architecture in their midst. “With a dignified church, it was no longer the wild plains,” he noted.

According to Coomber, Dohmen sent one or two craftsmen (along with drawings for each phase of construction) to assist with the initial construction of each church. The craftsmen trained monks, priests and volunteers to build the churches, and much of the volunteer labor came from farmers in the community.

“Dohmen visited Richardton, but he probably never saw the other churches, even though he designed every detail of them from his office in Milwaukee,” Coomber said.

Wehrle will be remembered, among other things, for motivating immigrants to build their churches.

Coomber said significant features of the Strasburg church are the 10 angels in the chancery, two side altars, a step-up pulpit, crossed-vault arches in the ceiling and beautiful paintings on the ceiling. He said the ceiling arches date back to the 12th Century when that type of arch was used for greater strength.

In the Strasburg church, for example, the ceiling (and arches) is suspended by steel rods connected to roof beams. “There is a tremendous space between the ceiling and roof,” Coomber said.

Construction of Sts. Peter & Paul began in 1909, and the building cost $45,000. The first Mass was a Midnight Mass for Christmas in 1911.

After Wehrle became the first Bishop of Bismarck in 1910, he came to bless the cornerstone of the new Strasburg church. The church was consecrated on June 28, 1916 and was the second consecrated church in the Diocese. The first and only other consecrated church in the Bismarck Diocese is St. Mary’s at Richardton.

He said the Strasburg paintings were done in 1927-28 by Berthoff Imhoff, a European nobleman who immigrated to Philadelphia, Pa., and later moved his family to Saskatchewan. “Imhoff was anti-social and wanted to be alone,” Coomber said. “He traveled around the country, stopping at churches and offering to do paintings and statues.” Imhoff died in 1939.

Stained glass windows in the Strasburg and Richardton churches were created by an artist from Milwaukee who wanted to match the strong colors and quality of European stained glass.

Coomber said five churches were altered in varying degrees by Vatican II in the 1960s. Since Vatican II required that priests face the congregation during mass, new altars were installed. In some cases, the ornate back altars. He said the Strasburg church is one of the few that has preserved much of the original appearance of the interior. He said the side altars were removed form the Mandan church for example.

After the Strasburg program, guests were treated to kuchen, bars and refreshments prepared by the Germans from Russia Chapter.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

Dressed in traditionak relics of yesteryear, Sts. Peter & Paul’s Church in Strasburg is always a popular visitors spot for tours featuring Germans from Russia sites.
Dr. James Coomber of Concordia College provided a history of the Germans from Russia immigrants and five of the Catholic churches they built to a large crowd Monday evening, July 17 in the basement of Sts. Peter and Paul’s Church in Strasburg. The Hague Cemetery was part of a tour of Germans from Russia sites set up by NDSU Libraries.
Katie Wald, secretary of the Strasburg area chapter of the Germans from Russia, is pictured July 17 in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Hague. Katie provided the NDSU Libraries group with an interesting history of the beautiful, ornate and historic church. St. Mary’s is the oldest continuously operating German-Russian Catholic Parish in North Dakota.
Katie Wald of Strasburg and Jay “Surrey” Gage of the NDSU Libraries, pose beside a beautiful sculptured wrought iron cross at the old St. Mary’s Cemetery at Hague.
People on the NDSU Libraries tour of Germans from Russia sites in the area are pictured at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Hague. Left to right are Dave Geck, Prairie Public Television videographer and editor, Fargo; Bob Dambach, program director and manager, Prairie Public Television, Fargo; retired teachers Art and Lois Freier of Wofford Heights, Cali.; Eric Schmaltz, a descendent of the Emmons County Schmaltz family and a St. Olaf College student who is an NDSU Libraries volunteer for Prof. Michael Miller; Betty Maier of Linton, a Germans from Russia Heritage Collection volunteer; Robert Schaible of Bismarck, master of ceremonies and publicity committee member for the GRHS convention; Carol Just Halverson, St. Louis Park, Minn., a story teller about Germans from Russia heritage and native of south central North Dakota; Bob and Margaret Freeman of Redondo, Cali., where Margaret is coordinator of the Gluckstal Colonies Research Assn. and Bob is retired form UNISYS; Larry Cox of Fargo, director of product marketing for the mutual group; Chris Maier of Linton, who is assisting with a history project; Ann Braaten, curator of the Emily P. Reynolds Costume Collection at NDSU; Charlotte Cox, development director, NDSU Libraries; John W. Beecher, NDSU Director of Libraries; Katie Wald of Strasburg, a volunteer for the German from Russia Heritage Collection and author of books about Hague; Jay Gage, curator of the Kempf Family Weavers Exhibition; Stefan (a native of the village of Mannheim near Odessa, Ukraine) and Ruth Klotzel, Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland, Stugart, Germany, where Ruth heads the social services programs; Felix Wald, who farmed near Hague with his wife, Katie, and now lives in Strasburg, and Michael M. Miller, a Strasburg native who is the Germans from Russia Bibliographer, NDSU Libraries.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County record

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