Church Basements Glow in the Darkness: It's Time
for the Annual Fall Supper at St. Mary's and Everywhere Else
Donovan, Lauren. "Church Basements Glow in the Darkness: It's Time for the Annual Fall Supper at St. Mary's and Everywhere Else." Bismarck Tribune, 15 September 2002, sec. 1C.
HAUGE - God hasn't made a better smell than swiss steak dinner
with all the trimmings cooking in a church basement on an autumn
Well, he didn't have to.
His people did, using the harvest from their gardens.
St. Mary's Church of Hague held its annual fall dinner last Sunday.
The menu is set by long tradition. No lasagna or chicken drummies
here. Nothing trendy, no ma'am.
It is hardy food, as familiar to the old country as the new in
a part of North Dakota where the distance between the two is not
an ocean but a generation.
St. Mary's fall supper will never appear on the menu at a four-star
Too bad for the restaurant.
The rich brown gravy, the fresh cabbage coleslaw with oil and tangy
vinegar and the sour pickles packed in quart jars that go with it
are soul food, simple and pure.
Just when it couldn't get any better, it does. There's still dessert.
The One who never made a smell like dinner in a church basement
knew about temptation. He never made anything more irrestible than
50 kinds of luscious pie laid out on a white cloth-covered table.
Which to pick, which to pick, the cream, the meringue, the fruit
pie? It's a moment that could take an eternity, if there weren't
50 people in a long line waiting to make the same sinfully delicious
The fall church dinner is not unique to St. Mary's, a church on
scale and beauty like few others in the state.
Before the days of autumn fall from the calendar like leaves from
a cottonwood tree, there will be hundreds of church dinners served
across North America.
Church basements will glow in the darkness, and cars will fill
the dusty parking lot.
Inside, the cheeks of the women will be flushed from the heat of
the ovens and pots steaming on the stove. They will all wear aprons.
Children will be pressed into service to pour red Kool-aid and
clear the tables. Men will lift the heavy roasters over to the serving
tables and set up and take down the chairs and tables.
Before anything else, the basement is cleaned to a fare thee well,
the floors waxed and polished and the tables wiped fresh. Underneath
the good smell of dinner, is the smell of clean like grandma's house.
These dinners are woven into the social fabric of the plains, like
the patterns of harvested fields are woven into the landscape tapestry.
A church with a reputation for a good meal will serve a number
much larger than its own congregation.
It's like having company for dinner, a lot of company. St. Mary's
serves nearly 900.
Daniel Bauer and LaVern Hale drove down from Bismarck, on the recommendation
"It's the most beautiful church I've seen," Bauer said.
He said the food ranked right up there, too.
Neighbors who don't church together will eat together, and the
money they pay for the meal goes toward operating the church.
The meal brings everyone together, and no one who wants to help
is left out.
At St. Mary's, most of the people who go to Mass have gray hair.
There are few young families left in the parish and an increasingly
smaller, and older, number are left to care for the gorgeous, neo-classical
church with 110 angels, stained glass and intricate detailing on
the walls and arched ceiling.
A smaller, and older, number attend Sunday Mass. The enormous nave
of the church can hold nearly 500 people, but the number at Mass
averages about 120.
Eileen Wald is 40, and she helped organize this year's dinner.
She worked alongside Helen Krumm, 82, first helping her down the
steps into the basement.
Helen is needed because she's the only who makes the special caramel
sauce to flavor the garden carrots served with the meal.
Wald, cheerful even while rushed into a near tizzy, finds humor
in the situation.
"We're considered the young ones, and we're 40," she
She keeps a close eye on her elderly friend and kindly asks her
to rest while someone else lifts the heavy cooking pot.
It's a worrisome trend in the countryside, especially to the people
of St. Mary's, who love their beautiful church so very much.
Pam Meier worries about how long the church can remain open. It's
where all the sacraments of her life have been celebrated, and it's
where she wants her funeral.
"I would just die if this church would close," she said.
She's the third generation in her family to attend St. Mary's.
Her husband's grandfather gave the last $10 he had back in the 1930s
to pay for the pulpit when the church was rebuilt after a fire.
It cost $80,000 to build in Depression dollars. Today, its replacement
value is set at $l.5 million, but that's probably low.
To Meier and the rest, St. Mary's is more than a building. It's
a tradition and a source of pride.
St. Mary's has a benefactor who regularly sends a big check to
Robert Fischer, the church secretary and financial officer, said
St. Mary's future is not about money. There's enough to pay annual
costs, plus big maintenance work, like new electrical wiring, furnace
and basement windows.
It's about people and fewer of them all the time.
In the meantime, the parish revolves around the church and part
of the pleasure comes from maintaining such a beautiful space.
"A lot of times, we're happy because of what we've got,"
Fischer said. "We're even happy to keep it up."
The church dinner, along with a raffle, brings about $9,000 every
The Rev. Leonard Eckroth said holding the dinner after harvest
gives folks the chance to see one another again after a busy season.
It's a lot of work for the local women, who are fewer in number,
"We have so many funerals," he said.
But Wald is as optimistic as she is cheerful about her work.
She said she's never seen an end to St. Mary's, only the days of
her church stretching to infinity.
The next big project for St. Mary's is to replace the four wooden
doors on the front entrance, another expensive and necessary project.
"The church doors will never close," Wald said.
Her words sound like a prayer on her lips.
New doors are the last thing people would replace in a building
they plan to leave.
Wald's prayer may be answered. She's still the "young one,"
with a lot of fall dinners ahead of her.
tables in the church basement accommodate the hundreds of
diners at St.Mary's Church in Hague.
Using a power drill,
Francis Krumm and Helen Frank mash potatoes for 900 people.
Katherine and Daniel
Klein wait inside St. Mary's Church before being seated for
dinner in the basement. The Kleins were married in the church
61 years ago.
Cars fill the parking
lot outside St. Mary''s Church in Hague.
Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.