St. James Church Celebrates 100 Years of Worship

Tandberg, Kathy. "St. James Church Celebrates 100 Years of Worship." Hazen Star, 20 September 2007, 7.

St. James Lutheran Church, moved in 1946 from the country into Golden Valley where services have continued, will celebrate 100 years of worship Sept. 23.
Along Mercer County Highway 5, nestled over the hill in southeast Golden Valley, a small, white church faces to the east where it greets the rising sun each morning.

This Sunday morning, Sept. 23, the sun will rise for a celebration of worship as the congregation of St. James Lutheran Church gathers to celebrate 100 years of worship.

The public is invited to join in the celebration of this House of Worship. The festivities begin at 10:30 a.m. with a mission fest. Special guests, the Rev. Scott Kuntz, now of Pennsylvania, St. James pastor 1995-1997, and the Rev. Robert Rowan, Lincoln, interim pastor at the church in the late 1990s, will officiate.

Following morning worship, the celebration will move to the Golden Valley City Hall for a noon potluck meal, with the meat provided by the church. At 1:30 p.m. back at the church, there will be a 100th birthday celebration service. Officiating will be special guest, the Rev. Larry Harvala, North Dakota District Lutheran Church Missouri Synod President.

Also officiating at the afternoon service will be St. James pastor, the Rev. David Suelzle. Suelzle has served St. James since April 1998, first jointly with St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Halliday, with the assistance of a lay worker through the November 2000 when St. Paul’s closed its doors, then solely at St. James to the present time. He has also been the pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Hazen for the past 21 years.

Following the afternoon service, the celebration will continue back at city hall for birthday cake and a sing-a-long with Suelzle, in both English and German.

No milestone of 100 years is complete without history. History and faith is what lies deep in the core of the St. James congregation, past and present.

A Missouri Synod Lutheran Church founded by Germans from Russia immigrants who first gathered together to worship in 1900, the history of St. James runs deep in Mercer County.

Though the church structure sets comfortably in Golden Valley, the location is not where the heart of the church began. Tracing its roots back in time, St. James Lutheran began as a country church approximately 9 miles northeast of Golden Valley. Sometime around 1900 in the area of Sofia, a congregation of neighbors who shared a common bond of heritage and faith began to gather in their homes and in the sheep shed on the Adolph Schlender homestead.

The faith of these neighbors ran deep and they began a plan to go forth and share this faith with an official church. It was seven years before St. James, at the time called by its original German name, “St. Jacobus,” was chartered.

St. James became an official congregation on Feb. 18, 1907, in a parish that also included St. Paul, Defiance (13 miles northeast of Halliday); St. John, Halliday (seven miles northeast of Halliday); and St. Matthew, Neusatz (13 miles north of Golden Valley). As these churches have closed their doors over the years, some of their members have become a part of the St. James congregation.

The names of the St. James charter members are unclear as the original church records are written in old German, making it difficult to translate. In the memoirs of an early interim vicar, Enno Budde, a Nebraskan native who taught school in Sofia and also filled in as occasional pastor for St. James in 1914, spoke of the worshipers of Sofia as the (Adolph) Schlender congregation.

Budde was a student at the Missouri Synod Theological College in Springfield, Ill., in September 1914 when he was approached by the college’s president who told him of a “call” or summons from a church. The call had come from North Dakota in effort to find a seminary student who could act as vicar to serve one of many congregations in the field.

The call was to Sofia and had come from the Rev. F.W. Kaul, who was serving St. James and two other congregations, as well as several mission places in the region of the Killdeer Mountains.

Budde interrupted his studies to accept the call and within the week was on his way to Golden Valley where he was to connect with Adolph Schlender. The vicar remained in the area for seven months teaching the area children and serving the congregation when Kaul could not be present.

Adolph’s grandson, Melvin Schlender, continues to live on his grandfather’s homestead with his family. From what Melvin can recall of early family stories, charter members include many neighbors: his grandfather Adolph Schlender Jr.; Adam Miller, father of Esther Miller and grandfather of Dorothy Dschaak; Henry Wagner, Henry Meyer and John Richau. Additional charter members, recalled today only by family surnames, include Schulz, Weigum and Meyer.

“My father Henry was one of the first recorded baptisms in the 1900 church records when services were held in the old sheep shed,” Melvin said.

In 1910, the congregation built the church structure on land donated by the Schlender family. There the church remained until 1946 when it was moved into Golden Valley where worship has continued.

A congregation, whether large or small, is important to a church. Suelzle said though the congregation of St. James is small with around 40 members, some who now live out of the area, they remain faithful as a congregation.

“We have 17-25 in attendance at services, very committed. In working with them in the past nine years, never have they talked about closing the doors. Where God’s people are, there’s Christ and the Word,” Suelzle said.

The St. Jacobus (James) Lutheran Church, then located northeast of Golden Valley, celebrated its 25 anniversary in 1932.
The longest remaining member of the St. James congregation is Esther Miller, Dodge. Miller, whose father Adam was one of the original charter members, was born and raised in the church where she was baptized, confirmed and then later married from to her husband, Edwin Miller.

“I think it’s very special to have St. James going this long,” Esther said.

Edwin became a member of the church in 1938 at the age of 12 when his family moved to the Golden Valley area from Halliday. He and Esther raised their three children in the St. James congregation.

“The church was full every Sunday and they even had to set up chairs many Sundays. There were at least 40 families in the congregation and they were all big families,” Edwin recalled.

Dorothy Dschaak, granddaughter of charter member Adam Miller and Esther’s niece, was raised in the church with her four siblings. Her parents, Bill and Ernestine Raab, were members who continued the tradition of faith in the church.

Dorothy and her siblings were baptized in the church; all were confirmed in the church except Dorothy because that was the one year in 100 that the church didn’t have a pastor. Dorothy and her husband Delmar were married from the church.

Clergy are also an important part of a church. Like all small country churches, calling in clergy is not always easy so instead, circuit riders, where one pastor would serve many congregations, traveling from church to church Sunday after Sunday, were usual.

Suelzle has enjoyed his relationship serving the St. James congregation. He sees the church as a vital part of any community, especially small communities where people often leave the smaller churches for larger churches in nearby towns.

“It is so important in the community to provide and bring in Christ to bear in the midst of those are there. It’s really been a privilege to be able to serve as their pastor. A privilege to continue to provide a viable Word and sacrament ministry,” Suelzle said.

Dedicated clergy have served the St. James congregation, from 1904 through today are:
1904-1905: Rev. Matthias (Hannover); 1905-1906: Rev. J. Duerr (Hazen); 1906-1908: Rev. W. Schmook (Hazen); 1908-1909: Rev. O.H. Pannkoke; 1909-1912: Rev. H. Mackensen; 1912-1920: Rev. F.W. Kaul; 1914-1915: Vicar Enno Budde; 1920-1921: Rev. R. Filter; 1922-1925: Rev. G. Heilman; 1926-1934: Rev. L.A. Reimler; 1934-1935: Rev. H.F. Gerike; 1935-1936: Vicar F. Geske; 1937-1939: Rev. W.E. Hannemannn; 1939-1940: Rev. W.J. Link; 1941-1944: Rev. H. Bruss; 1945-1946: Rev. E.R. Dubs; 1947-1951: Rev. S. Meske; 1951-1956: Rev. A.G. Schwab; 1957-1993: Rev. Harry R. Theiss; 1933-1995: Rev. Fredrick C. Hearn; 1995-1997: Rev. Scott Kuntz; 1997-1998: Rev. Robert Rowan; and 1998-present: Rev. David Suelzle.

The early settlers built a church to last. More than 100 years later, the dream of a church long a reality, St. James still stands; the Word of God still alive within. Several miles away, the prairie winds whistle through the grass that now blows across the vacant land.

Only the church cemetery remains on the original site, along with an iron sign designating the original German name, St. Jacobus, 1900-1946, Sofia.

Today, all that remains of St. James Lutheran Church at the original site of Sofia, are the original cemetery and an iron sign marking the site by the church’s German name, St. Jacobus.

Reprinted with permission of the Hazen Star.

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