German-Russians Erected Beautiful Monuments to Faith

Isern, Tom. "German-Russians Erected Beautiful Monuments to Faith." Farm & Ranch Guide, 1 December 1995, 60.

I took a tour group out to Strasburg, ND, home of Lawrence Welk. Although we went to the Welk homestead, there was more to explore than the origins of the renowned entertainer. We were looking into German-Russian culture - of the Black Sea German Catholic variety, not Mennonite or Volga German, such as I knew in my Kansas boyhood.

Near the little town of Hauge we walked around a country cemetery filled with iron-cross grave markers crafted by local smiths. These are sublime pieces of folk art, but some of the things happened around the old Hague cemetery are unsettling. Someone has spray-painted all the crosses silver. That seems wrong to me; they need to be black.

Worse, someone has planted seedling trees in rows on both sides of the cemetery. I suppose the intent is to make things more pleasant for tourists stopping by, but that seems wrong, too. Trees don't belong. These are plains folk resting here.

What most impressed my group, though, was the beautiful St. Peter and Paul Church of Strasburg. Father Leonard Eckroth was cordial, and the ladies of the German-Russian Heritage Society served coffee and kuchen in the basement. But it was the ornamentation of the church, even more than the hospitality of its parishioners, that was stunning.

As you enter you are likely to overlook the Pieta to your left, because your eyes are drawn into the beautiful sanctuary. The statuary, painstakingly restored, the wealth of stained glass, and the vaulted ceilings inspire awe. You think, all this, in the little town of Strasburg.

Then you are inclined to think that the folk responsisble for this must have been lions of the church - not only pioneers of the plains, but also perpetuators of the faith, worthy of veneration. St. Fidelis Church of Victoria, KS (the so-called Cathedral of the Plains), inspires the same sort of awe (although I think I prefer the church in Pfeifer, with its alcove of stained glass windows depicting the settlement of western Kansas).

These pioneers, although they erected great monuments to their faith, had their human foibles. They could be downright ornery at times.

I know this from reading the memoir of Father Justus Schweizer, who filled the pulpit at Strasburg for a few years just after 1900 (before the big church was built in 1909- 11). Father Justus' writings were recently discovered in the archives of an abbey in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.

Even before the good father arrived in Strasburg, the parish priest in Aberdeen, South Dkota had advised him, "I know these German-Russians. They are great people with much good but are also intermixed with some bad self-determination," He called them "Kopekenspalter," which is to say, penny-pinchers.

Later Father Justus' bishop would say, "These German-Russians are the biggest burden in my diocese. They have their scrapes with their priests in almost every parish."

The priest did have his scrapes with the folk at Strasburg, beginning with his first mass. He quizzed the young folk of the congregation on their catechetical knowledge and found them wanting. (Asked, "What is marrriage?" a young woman replied, "The place where sins of an earlier life are burned away.")

Father Justus insisted the people should establish a parish school. They fought him all the way, and also remained fond of drink and dance. Somehow, these same folks, within five years, would erect St. Peter and Paul Church. Go figure.

Reprinted by permission from Farm & Ranch Guide.

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