Annual Church Suppers Apart of Rural Life on Plains

"Annual Church Suppers Apart of Rural Life on Plains." Forum, 7 October, B1-2.

Mike Nelson eats a piece of lefse Sunday during the Hegland Lutheran Church annual supper southeast of Hawley, Minn. Photos by Darren Gibbins
The same scene unfolds at almost every rural church each autumn. Women peel potatoes in the kitchen, stirring gravy, scooping coleslaw, serving up pieces of pie. Community members line up for the meal, handing dollar bills to the man at the metal cash box.

Its the churchs fall supper thats supper, not dinner home-cooked food at its finest, prepared for the masses, a staple of rural life marked on the calendar each September or October.

People plan their Sundays in the fall around all these church suppers, says the Rev. Tom Olson, pastor of Hegland, Solem and Lysne Lutheran churches outside Hawley, Minn. Its really a time of wonderful fellowship, for community to come together and support each other.

Hegland Lutheran had its annual dinner Sunday. The church, which has an average attendance of 60, served about 350 people.

Most of the church members have the same jobs year to year, says Janice Alm, church secretary. She carves the roast beef.

Janet Nelson looks on as the Rev. Tom Olson takes a little ribbing while washng dishes at the supper.

"Churches are known for the specialty", Olson says."Hegland is always roast beef. Lysne is always meatballs."

"People look forward to that particular dish prepared by that particular church."

Many parishioners dont seem to know how long their church supper has been going on, or why theyve always served roast beef or turkey or ham.

But in most communities, everyone knows that on a certain Saturday or Sunday of the month, that church will have its supper.

Its a tradition that crosses denominational lines, but not geographical ones, says Tom Isern, professor of history and religion at North Dakota State University.

Church suppers are plentiful in western Canada and the Northern Plains but peter out to the south, he says.

Part of their popularity here is the need for a good fall festival, Isern says.

Thanksgiving is really a winter holiday in this part of the country, so these become important fall events, Isern says.

These sorts of meals started in the early 20th century, Isern says, often as fowl suppers, as most served turkey or chicken. Then Norwegians started holding lutefisk feeds. Other communities developed their specialties.

Theyre very much bound up in the rhythm of the life of the community, Isern says.

As time has gone on, the dynamic of the fall supper has changed, Isern says.

With increased mobility on the plains, theyve become homecoming functions. People drive hundreds of miles to attend, he says.

And as population has thinned in rural areas, theyve become more ecumenical, Isern says.

But the food has remained the same, Isern says. Unlike many other church functions, theres no hotdish in sight.

In that sense, its really old fashioned and traditional. Its really an anachronism, he says.

In western Cass County, Canaan Moravian Churchs annual meal often draws 950 people, says Darlene Miller, whos on the Womens Fellowship group.

Thats 40 turkeys, if not more, and 25 pounds of potatoes, she says.

Most of the food is donated by the women, rather than bought by the church. Its a major fundraiser for the fellowship, bringing in about $4,000, she says.

The meal used to be on Wednesday but a few years ago switched to Saturday. The weekday event was too hard for the working women, Miller says.

You go home with sore feet at the end of the night, but its usually a fun night, she says.

You get to see people you probably only get to see that time of the year, Miller says. When its a political year, we get lots of politicians pushing their wares.

Miller says a lot of people come from Fargo. And community members try to return the favor of attending each others meals. She knows the Catholic church in Casselton, N.D., always has a roast beef dinner.

The Rev. Frank Miller, the priest at St. Leos in Casselton, appreciates the reciprocity of the church supper and the kinship that develops within each parish.

It brings people together that dont know each other in the community, Frank Miller says. The young get to work with the old and the old with the young and it makes for a community.

Were so close to the land, it just seems appropriate to be in the fall after were all done, Frank Miller says.

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