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 afternoon.

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 restaurant.

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 choice.

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 of friends.

"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 said.

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 the church.

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 year.

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, he said.

"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.

Large 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.

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