Prairie Dreams Remain

Morast, Robert. "Prairie Dreams Remain." Forum, 5 April 2008, sec. B1 and B3.

Listen to – or read – some reports of the North Dakota landscape, and you’re given images of a bleak prairie where dying towns are receding into the vacant and vast fields of wind-whipped natural grass.

And while many of the state’s small towns are only getting smaller, images of a more prosperous past remain. Standing tall against the backdrop of social migration and aging populations are the churches that have always tied these communities together.

Some are massive with ornate European designs topped by steeples poking out of friendly neighborhoods. Others stand alone as utilitarian and plain chapels built on pasturelike parcels of land that could just as easily serve as a farmer’s hay fields.

Whether active or retired, they remain as testaments to communities that were – often – literally built around these houses of God.

Monday at 8 p.m., Prairie Public Television will air "Prairie Churches," a documentary focused on the beauty, symbolism and importance of small-town churches in North Dakota, western Minnesota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

"They’re out there on the prairie as monuments to the settlers," says Kim Stenehjem, producer of the program. "They were built by people who really believed that by building this beautiful church … somehow the town would live up to their dreams."

And in North Dakota, those dreams were filled with thoughts of the Father. According to a 2007 story in USA Today, North Dakota has 2,300 churches. That’s more, per capita, than any other state. Most of them – more than three-fourths – can be found in rural communities.

"You drive down these country roads and you don’t see anything for miles and miles, and then you see a steeple on the horizon," Stenehjem says. "Some of these churches are kept open … and I think that’s nice."

In some ways, if these hearts of the communities still beat with the pulse of life, their towns can’t die.

The documentary – which was filmed over three years as the production team visited 117 churches – profiles not just the design and function of these buildings but also the people who built them, maintain them and in some cases the folks trying to ensure that these churches don’t die.

"It’s a real sense of the community," says Sheldon Green, a writer and photographer for Concordia College who co-authored the book "Magnificent Churches on the Prairie."

Green, who is interviewed in the program, says these prairie churches were often built in the center of town and connected the townsfolk to their roots. For some, the roots bound people through spiritual communion. For others, the European designs – like domed towers or stained glass windows – were a connection to the homelands of German or Russian settlers. With history in mind, the documentary makes it clear that many people don’t want the roots of these churches ripped from the prairie soil.

Among the documentary’s stories of civilians purchasing and/or refurbishing prairie churches is David Haslekaas a farmer who bought and preserved the Hitterdal Church near Milton, North Dakota.

"This church means a lot for our family," Haslekaas says in the show. "We kept it not just for our family but for other families."

Others are finding help through the Preservation North Dakota, an organization intent on preserving North Dakota’s past. The PND’s Prairie Churches program has helped several rural communities restore depressed or retired churches.

"I have no doubt that a large number of prairie churches can be saved," Tom Isern, a North Dakota State University history professor, says in the documentary. "But it depends on people believing there’s some reason to save them. It’s not a matter of a shortage of resources. It’s a matter of a shortage of faith. … Let’s invest a little faith."

North Dakota has more churches per capita than any other state. This church sits outside Arena, N.D. Images courtesy of Prairie Public Television
Rothsay, Minn., is known for its large prairie chicken sculpture, but the city’s South Immanuel Lutheran Church is featured in Prairie Public’s "Prairie Churches" program.
Great Bend’s Trinity Lutheran Church is featured in the Prairie Public documentary "Prairie Churches."

Reprinted with permission of the Forum.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller