Prairie Churches of North Dakota
Jacobs, G. Anita. "Prairie
Churches of North Dakota." High Plains
Reader, 15 October 2003, 18-19.
Imagine the North Dakota prairie 75, 100, 125 years ago. Wherever
a band of immigrants put down roots, often the first thing they put
up was a church. They were only a buggy ride away from one another.
Today, North Dakota still has more than 2,200 churches, more per
capita than any other state in the nation. Of those churches, 78
percent are in rural areas or small towns, and 57 percent are considered
historic, more than 50 years old.
Twenty percent are closed or being used for something besides worship.
It's estimated that five to 10 more will close each year. Those
statistics come from a survey done by volunteers across the state
in 1998-1999, in which each church building was photographed and
catalogued. Collectively, the Prairie Churches of North Dakota were
named to the 11 Most Endangered Properties List compiled by the
National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2001, to call attention
to the need to preserve the historically significant rural architectural
To share all that is being done to document, preserve and protect
the state's rural prairie churches, the State Historical Society
of North Dakota will present an exhibit at the Heritage Center in
Bismarck entitled, "Prairie Churches of North Dakota."
The exhibit was created in
partnership with Preservation North Dakota and the National Trust
for Historic Preservation.
Co-curated by Shawn Holz, the exhibit opens to the public on Oct.
25 and includes almost 300 images, as well as artifacts, from among
the state's 2,200 churches.
"It's unlike any other exhibit we've had," says Holz.
In addition to the sheer amount of information in the exhibit, "there's
a lot of emotional content."
Imagine how farmers in the Buffalo area brought fieldstones to
town by wagon, dropping them off at the empty church lot to use
as building material for the Calvary Episcopal Chapel. Today that
building is part of the Heritage Center in Buffalo and serves as
In the Warsaw area, the Catholic immigrants named their church
after St. Stanislaus. The brick structure was easily the biggest
and most impressive building for miles around. After restoration
several years ago, it is still a remarkable place of worship.
In Billings and Stark Counties, the Ukrainian immigrants built
churches that looked like the buildings they were accustomed to
in their homeland, complete with their onion-shaped domes.
Pictures of each of these churches are included in the exhibit,
which details the historical and continued importance of the churches
in their communities. Among the artifacts that come from the Historical
Society's permanent collection are a church bell from Woyatan Raven
Presbyterian Church, an altar and altar painting from Dodge Lutheran
Church, along with vestments, chalice, Communion cups, and cassock.
"There is no other building that elicits so many human connections,"
says Dale Bentley, executive director of Preservation North Dakota.
"The church is where many life events -- baptisms, confirmations,
weddings, celebrations, social activities and funerals-- have taken
place for generations. In a historic church, you are connected to
the sense of place, memories of home, as well as the traditions
and faith of your ancestors."
Architectural styles, stained glass windows, altar art and statuary
-- all these elements make the buildings unique to North Dakota.
The exhibit also talks of the ethnic backgrounds that settled the
state: Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, German, Polish and Ukrainian.
It explores their
unique social, ceremonial and community traditions.
It also talks of the loss of history when a church building is
intentionally or accidentally destroyed.
An Icelandic church, Thingvalla Lutheran Church in Pembina County,
was having restoration work done on its windows when a fire broke
out, and the building burned to the ground. Untold heritage was
Tonset Lutheran Church in Burke County was struck by lightning,
and part of the steeple burned. The church was saved in part by
the pressed tin paneled interior that was never replaced with modern
Sheetrock. With the assistance of a grant from Preservation North
Dakota, the congregation members rebuilt the steeple and left one
charred board over the door to remind people how close the church
came to burning down completely. What is more distressing is when
a church is closed and then abandoned or demolished by its former
Preservation North Dakota, a state-wide historic preservation group,
has been awarding grass-roots grants, providing technical assistance,
and hosting demonstration projects to show that "it doesn't
take much to save a building."
"It only takes a few dollars and one person to make a difference,"
says executive director Bentley. Preservation North Dakota has made
saving the prairie churches its main thrust for the past five years.
Grants have been made possible through the J. M. Kaplan Fund, Save
America's Treasures, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation,
as well as grass roots
efforts by the members of Preservation North Dakota.
One such demonstration project was at Ladbury Church, located north
of Valley City. Closed in 1936, the building was used for Memorial
Day services. But time and nature took its toll on the building.
Preservation North Dakota brought in its members, the services of
an architect, fund-raising advice, a small grant award and solicited
the help of area volunteers to restore the church.
Meeting at the remote location for several weekends throughout
the summer, the volunteers shored up the foundation, filled in the
basement, replaced the roof, and gave the clapboard building a coat
of badly needed paint. "More importantly, the group showed
that it could be done," says Bentley, who was among the volunteers.
The building has since been used for two weddings, a lecture series,
Memorial Day services, celebrations and community picnics.
The exhibit in Bismarck also shows another aspect of the Prairie
Churches of North Dakota project -- the success stories of little
congregations. Preservation North Dakota works with congregations
that are interested in maintaining and preserving their historic
churches. Sometimes a congregation will sell or donate their building
to be used as something else -- a museum, a senior citizen center,
daycare center, a retail shop, theater or a home. The best way to
preserve these buildings, however, is to continue to use them for
their intended purpose.
The ultimate form of recycling, adaptive reuse is a preferred alternative
to abandonment. Church buildings can also be preserved, "moth-balled,"
for use during special heritage services.
"The only thing necessary is for someone to care," says
Bentley. "Who knows what the future will bring? We have examples
of churches that have been empty for over 60 years that have found
new life -- some even opening their doors to the community for worship
and others finding new uses."
A New Jersey woman called Bentley with praise for the Prairie Churches
of North Dakota project. "When you save these churches, you're
not just doing it for North Dakota," she explained. "This
is America's heritage, too."
"She's right," adds Bentley. "These churches have
a great story to tell, the story of westward expansion and settlement.
The story of North Dakota."
After its year long display at the Heritage Center in Bismarck,
a portion of the exhibit will be packed up and travel the state,
borrowed by smaller museums for temporary use.
Reprinted with permission of High Plains Reader.