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With its stained glass windows and cross removed, North La Moure Church near Litchville, N.D., faces an uncertain future. The building will likely be burned down this winter. The windows went to a church in Fargo.
God's little houses on the prairie: North Dakota's rural churches are a precious, endangered lot

Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, North Dakota, December 26, 2002, pages 1B and 4B

By Molly Millett
St. Paul Pioneer Press

St. Paul Pioneer Press photo by Neal Lambert

The communities they once served are losing population. North Dakotans now cluster in larger cities, such as Grand Forks and Fargo, putting their money and time into churches with central air-conditioning, electronic bells and sprawling parking lots.

WALSH COUNTY, N.D. A white clapboard church stands alone here on the North Dakota prairie, the wooden cross at the top of its steeple overlooking an endless horizon.

Now, listen closely.

Hear the chiming of the church's bell?

It is a crisp, clear sound that travels easily over the flat landscape. It speaks of weddings, Sundays, Christmas. It sounds like joy.

Kenneth Johnson, 78, is inside the 1-room church this early December morning, pulling the rope that tolls the bell. This is North Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, the church of his Scandinavian ancestors. The 112-year-old structure closed for weekly services in 1953, but members of "The Board" continue to take loving care of it.

On Christmas Eve, three generations of Johnsons returned to this church to participate in what has become a Christmas tradition.

"When she was a little girl, Nelly Almen lived a quarter mile from here, and she said she remembers listening to the bell ringing every Christmas Eve night," Johnson says. "She grew up and moved away to California, but every year, she sent a little gift of money to the church, and she'd write that 'I'll listen for the bell' in her mind.

"Well, in 1974, I had a mobile telephone mounted in my pickup truck, so I called her on Christmas Eve, and she heard the bell ringing from her apartment in San Francisco," he says. "From there, it just mushroomed."

Now, former parishioners across the country hear the peals of Trinity's bell every Christmas Eve. This year, Johnson, a son and a grandson took turns ringing the bell and making about 20 calls. If they missed anyone, they left the sound of the bell chimes on answering machines.

For 82-year-old Bernice Hall, who lived in the area most of her life, the phone call is her favorite Christmas present. The farmer's wife moved to the Twin Cities in 1999 after her husband died, so she could live closer to her daughter, but she misses North Dakota.

"The sound of the bell brings back lots of memories. I get a lump in my throat, listening to it," Hall says. "I wonder if the people doing it realize how much it means to us who are away."

Gravestones, that date from the 1880s to the present, are found in the North La Moure Church cemetery near Litchville, N.D.

I grew up in North Dakota, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. Prairie churches have always been a part of my life. I was baptized in one, attended Sunday school in another, was married in one. I have a childhood memory of looking up to admire how the white clapboard of a church contrasted against a vivid blue sky.

When my family drove across the state, I entertained myself by trying to spot churches. I found one every few miles. As an adult, I still play that game when I drive through North Dakota, my eyes automatically scanning the horizon.

We North Dakotans are faithful. The state has more churches per capita than any other in the union. The population has the second top church attendance rate, bested 1 percent by Utah.

Despite our faithful natures, North Dakota's rural prairie churches are endangered.

The communities they once served are losing population. North Dakotans now cluster in larger cities, such as Grand Forks and Fargo, putting their money and time into churches with central air-conditioning, electronic bells and sprawling parking lots.

Newcomers who do move into rural communities aren't necessarily churchgoers or of the Lutheran faith. It's difficult to find clergy for remote communities and for dwindling congregations to keep up the church buildings on limited budgets. About five to 10 prairie churches close each year, some abandoned to the elements, some burned to the ground after they shut down as a sign of respect, like old flags.

But recently, there's been a move to save the churches.

The movement began gaining steam in 1998 with the "Picture North Dakota Churches!" survey. Local volunteers spent that summer documenting locations, ages and conditions of the state's old churches.

Now, the Prairie Churches of North Dakota project is a joint effort by the state historical society and the nonprofit groups Preservation North Dakota and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The movement is aided by volunteers.

In 2001, the state's prairie churches made the National Trust's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. That has brought attention from the New York Times and the Washington Post. It's also brought money, enough for Preservation North Dakota to provide technical assistance and small matching grants to people who want to save the churches.

"I got a call from a New Jersey woman who said that when you save these churches, you're not just doing it for North Dakota this is America's heritage, too, and she's right. These churches tell the story of westward expansion and settlement," says Dale Bentley, executive director of Preservation North Dakota.

"And then I talked with people from Scandinavia Iceland and Norway and Sweden and they said, 'These churches are our history, too. The Americans were our cousins.' So the world cares about these little churches out on the prairie."

Dale Bentley, president of Preservation North Dakota, considers Lund Church, near Luverne, N.D., one of the states most threatened churches.


"I simply decided I didn't want to see this church go down," says North Dakota farmer George Amann as he stands outside the newly restored Union Congregational Church. "It's time to start saving some of these churches and hope that people will eventually want to come back to North Dakota to look at them and enjoy them."

And so Amann, Preservation North Dakota and others worked to restore the Ladbury church, as the one-room building is known. About 20 miles north of Valley City, it was built around 1899 and closed in 1936. In recent years, it deteriorated.

Since 2000, about 60 volunteers have spent more than 3,000 hours restoring the church. In August, the building came to life again when a couple married there. The church is pure frontier America. The floorboards are roughhewn, kerosene lamps hang from the tin ceiling, the bell is the fanciest ornamentation.

"We said, 'Let's do this as a demonstration project,'" Bentley says. "We wanted to prove that it could be done."

"Now, everybody's proud of it, not only the people of this community, but the state of North Dakota," Amann says.

Ladbury serves as an example of what many hope will be a new use for old churches sites for weddings, heritage services and community gatherings.


I've been to France, where I stood inside Notre Dame in Paris and listened to an Easter choir sing at the massive cathedral of Chartres. But I don't believe even the great churches of Europe can compare to the plain, unadorned beauty of a typical prairie church. They are peaceful and still quietly beautiful, just like the prairie.

Bentley agrees.

"These little churches are more personal than the huge churches," Bentley says. "I've been to the National Cathedral, and I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy being there, but to be honest, it didn't have the same feeling as the plain, simple, spiritual feeling you have in one of these churches on the prairie. I think it's the quiet, gentle nature of the people that comes across."

There are more than 2,000 church buildings in North Dakota, 78 percent of them in small towns of 2,500 or less. Many are simple, wood-frame structures on the open prairie. Others are cathedrals, designed by architects and built in stone or brick.

The churches even abandoned ones hold precious artwork, including stained glass windows, altar paintings, carvings and statues, says Preservation North Dakota.

The churches also hold the history of these rural communities names of members dating back to the late 1800s, birth and death records, baptism and confirmation lists, minutes of church council and ladies' aid meetings, Sunday school logs, photographs ... all information not documented anywhere else.

Settlers from Norway, Sweden, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Ukraine, Iceland and other northern and eastern European countries came to North Dakota in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seeking a better life. They represented faiths ranging from Lutheran to Catholic to Moravian to Greek Orthodox. Faith was a central part of their lives.

"The pioneer women wanted two things when they came to North Dakota: a school and a church," Amann says.

Preservation North Dakota estimates that at least 50 churches will close this decade.

But some survive. On a recent Sunday, about 35 adults and 15 children attended services at Goshen Moravian Church, about 25 miles west of Fargo. There was a joyful feeling as a Christmas tree sparkled with Moravian stars and the church bell sounded over the organ to mark the start of the service.

Some parishioners travel more than 30 miles to attend. New, nonfarming residents have helped expand the congregation's numbers, and so have outreach efforts, like a regular softball game and family picnic on the church grounds. Just recently, congregation members went caroling around the area. Their dynamic pastor also attracts members.

"I think we're aware that we had to grow or be like any other country church and die," says church elder David Piper.

Billy Dittmer, 5, draws as his grandparents, Bill (left) and Sue Ann Dittmer, sing a hymn during Sunday services in Goshen Moravian Church near Durbin, N.D. Goshen Moravian, considered a jewel among North Dakota prairie churches, has made a conscious effort to recruit younger members to the congregation. The church will celebrate it's 125th anniversary next year.

I was married in a church that stands on the empty North Dakota prairie.

St. John's was built in 1890 by Scandinavian settlers who lived near Fort Abercrombie in the Dakota Territory. When the congregation outgrew the building in 1940, they established a larger church in town but left St. John's standing. It is now used for heritage services, but until our ceremony in October 2000, there hadn't been a wedding there in more than two decades.

On my trip home, I decided to drive by the church and visit with Palmer Tverdahl, an 85-year-old retired farmer who remembers attending St. John's.

Palmer told me his parents married in St. John's in 1915 and showed me a photograph of their wedding party, driving past the church in buggies. He told me of the pain his father felt upon learning that the church would close and how the building was almost lost in World War II, when someone suggested tearing it down for lumber that could help the war effort.

"I was so glad you got married there," Palmer told me. "What's an empty church?"

Until recently, Palmer rang the church bell on Christmas Eve night.

"I think I started in 1944," he said. "When it's below zero, it's not a very warm job, but the sound carries better."

He's too frail to sound the bell any longer.

"The last time I rang the bell, it sounded like it was saying, 'Goodbye,' 'Goodbye,'" he says.

I volunteer to ring St. John's bell on Christmas Eve next year, if the congregation wouldn't mind.

"It's so good to hear you say that," Palmer says.

And then we smile, two kindred spirits who both love this little prairie church and never want its bell to go silent.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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