Rev. Msgr. Boniface J. Stuetz

Historical Record of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Balta, North Dakota

Reverend Monsignor Stuetz, Boniface J. "Historical Record of our Lady of Mount Carmel Church." 27 April 1938.

Permission to print this text from the Diocese of Fargo, Fargo, North Dakota

1. History of the place before it had a church. (First settlers, striking incidents of early history, changes in name of place, etc.)

The district of the present parish of Balta in Pierce County began to be settled in the year 1899 by German Catholics who had immigrated to the United States from German colonies in South Russia. Before the arrival of these German Russian Catholics, the whole region around Balta was uninhabited and practically no settlers had set up their abode here. The land was still free and could be acquired by filing a so-called “claim” with the government.

The German Russian Catholic settlers, after arriving in the New World, as a rule stayed for a few weeks with some friends and relatives who had established a new home already. Thus the majority of our Catholic people had friends in the towns of Eureka, Aberdeen, Ipswich, all in South Dakota. From there they moved across the border-line into North Dakota and pitched their tents in what is today Emmons County and McIntosh County. However, droughts, poor land, and consequently poor crops induced our pioneers to look for a more promising location with better prospects of livelihood. Several of the men were, therefore, delegated as scouts or explorers to the territory of the present Pierce County. Rumors had reached them that there the land was good and still unclamied. Amongst those early explorers were Peter Vetsch, Wendelin Schall, Joseph Hoffart and others. The report of the explorers was favorable and the new settlement began at once in 1899. The influx of Catholic settlers kept on steadily until the year 1902, by which time the whole territory was then practically settled. It was ever the endeavor of the new arrivals to stay together as much as possible and to build their new homes near one another, so that each one could be a help to the other case in need.

Amongst those early sturdy pioneers we find: Peter Vetsch, Wendelin Schall, Frank Goetz, Joseph Hoffart, Peter Eisenzimmer, Jakob Schmalz, Clemens Klein, Gabriel and Xavier Sheet, Markus Welk, Karl Voeller, John, Joseph, Peter, Franz, Martin and Michael Axtmann, George Zacher, Philipp Schmalz, Rochus Schneider and others. Of these, several are still living.

b. All pioneers underwent unspeakable hardships and privations. This so much so that some of them entertained the plan to return again either to Germany, from where their grandparents had come or to South Russia. Conditions were more than primitive; conveniences there were none what so ever. Traveling was carried on with some rickety wagon and very often with a stone boat which was drawn by a pair of oxen. Thus, moving from McIntosh County to the present Pierce County took them over two weeks. It was late in the year; blizzards overtook them on the open prairie, their only shelter being a wagon-box and a few blankets.

On their way here several children died and were buried on the lonely prairie. Weeping and almost heartbroken the pioneers stood around the graves, which they had a hard time to dig, and recited the Rosary, blessed the graves with their year and a Sign of the Cross and then they moved on. Later on they were able to rediscover some of those resting places and the remains were transferred into blessed ground, other graves could no longer be found and God alone knows, where those buried there slumber.

While living in the southern part of the state, the first marriages took place. As a rule the settlers went to the Indian Reservation, where Father Bernard Strasmaier O.S.B., took care of the spiritual needs of the German Catholics. What this meant is easily understood, if we remember that some families lived some 36 and 40 miles away from the Reservation and that more than once they walked this stretch on foot.

Reaching their destination in present Pierce County at last, the open prairie was their abode, the sky their shelter and the wagon-box their only room, until a sod house had been built.

2. Visits of early missionaries. (First Mass, priest, etc.)

Being at last settled on their new homesteads, the main concern of our pioneers was their faith and religion. A delegation was sent to Very Rev. Vincent Wehrle O.S.B., then Prior of St. Gaul’s Monastery near Devils Lake to ask him for a German speaking priest. Father Vincent, by which name he was then known throughout the territory, kindly accepted the requests of the petitioners and as their first priest he sent Father Bernard Arnold O.S.B. Fr. Bernard then visited the settlers from time to time and under his guidance the first church in the Fulda district was built. Thus we find that in those early days services were usually held in the region of the present Fulda parish.

In the year 1902, Father John Burger O.S.B. was sent from Devils Lake to take charge of the Catholic settlers. Services became more regular. Father Johannes, as the settlers called him endearingly, took the people to heart. He stayed with them whenever he could for days on end. He said Mass for them, administered the Sacraments and, what was the most important thing, gathered the children together and instructed them in their religion. He helped the settlers by word and deed in whatever manner he best could.

It is, therefore, no wonder that the name of Father John Burger should have been kept in reverence and esteem to this very day. His memory is almost something sacred with the old settlers and there is no home found which does not display the picture of Father John in prominent place. It is with touching love and loving gratitude that the old people speak of Father John’s untiring, unselfish and self-sacrificing work and labors. Father John Burger O.S.B. is a member of the famous Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland, from where Most Rev. Bishop Wehrle had brought him. With Father John had come also Father Justus Schweizer O.S.B., however, Fr. Justus only now and then came up here and took the place of Father John. Father Justus had his field of work in a different direction. Yet the pioneers also remember him. Today both, Fr. John and Fr. Justus, are living in Switzerland, whither they returned some years ago.

Before Fr. John Burger build the first church in the Balta district, Holy Mass was offered in private homes, this mostly in the house of John Migler. There also the children gathered for instructions.

In the year 1905 a church was built four miles north-west of the present Balta town. The plan of the settlers was that in the course of time a little town could be established around the church and so they gave the site or locality of their church the name: Selz. This christening was due to the circumstance that several of the grandparents of the settlers had immigrated to South Russia from the city of Selz in Germany. Their colony in South Russia had born the same name and it was to live on in the New World. In this Selz church, as it was then called, services were held rather regularly by Father John O.S.B.

Be it remarked here that the above naming of the new locality was made a matter of importance. Since other names were suggested by colonists from other towns, the christening was much disputed. To make matters short the party or faction offering the greatest contribution towards the church was to win out.

The Selz families raised the sum of $230.00 and came out victorious.

3. Name and occupation of note worthy laymen who aided the missionaries.

All the settlers gained their daily bread by farming; however there were among them many skillful craftsmen and artisans. Thus we find blacksmiths, carpenters, wagoners, cabinet-makers, brick-and stone-masons, shoe-makers and also tailors. Whatever their occupation, they all cooperated harmoniously and whole-heartedly helped to build up their new community. Note worthy for outstanding help in those early days were: Peter Eisenzimmer, Peter Vetsch, Philipp and Jakob Schmalz, John Migler, Gabriel and Xavier Scheet, the Axtmann families and others.

4. When did the place become a station, that is a place without a church, but where Mass was said at stated times?

In the year 1912 the Soo-Line built a railroad through the territory. Soon the town of Balta began its existence. With the town growing more and more, the people decided to establish a parish of their own. This was in 1917.

At once the Catholic people set to work and built a priest house. The current of thought was: once we have a house, a priest sooner or later will live in such house. The priest once living amongst us, the organization of the parish and the building of a church will follow of itself and be a simple matter of course.

Alas! The new priest-house was completed, but it stood empty for almost two years. Priests were scarce, especially German speaking priests, the world war was raging in its fury and good Bishop O’Reilly was unable to send a priest, much as he wished to do so. Meanwhile the good people could do nothing but attend divine services in their old “Selz Church”, 4 miles north west of town. In the absence of the priest, the people gathered on Sundays in a Pool hall and there they arranged private devotions. They recited the Rosary, sang their old religious songs and there they had their children instructed. The settlers had been so fortunate as to engage a very good and very capable teacher for their school and this in the person of Mr. Paul A. Sand. Mr. Sand, a native of Minnesota, graduate of St. John’s University, had followed the call of the settlers. His fine course of studies and especially in church music enabled him to conduct such private devotions as were feasible and also to build up a choir. Thus he made it his task not only to instruct the younger generation in the secular branches, but also in matters of faith and religion. For many years, Paul Sand was in charge of the school and practically the whole present generation has sat at his feet. He deserves the gratitude of the whole community for his work.

The town of Balta was first called “Egan”, but the settlers fancied such name by no means. Hence they changed this name into Balta. This name Balta is taken from a rather large and beautiful city in Bessarabia which to the settlers was well known since they had either lived in its vicinity or because it had been their trading post in the old country. The name Selz then was given up. This also, because in the meantime another group of settlers had started a town by the name of Selz some 24 miles south of Balta. The abandoning of the name caused some bitter grief to that party of the pioneers who at a former date had contributed the greatest share when the christening of the new site was auctioned off!
All their efforts had been in vain and the sum of $230.00, although in the end given towards the church, seemed to have been given in vain!

However, Balta was to be the name of the new town and is still today!

It was Holy Week in the year 1919. The train moved slowly into the little establishment of Balta. Off the train stepped a priest. It was Father Philipp Bahner O.S.B. who came from here from St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. Father Philipp was the first priest to enter the new parsonage, now standing for two years. He became the first resident pastor of Balta. Father Philipp then built the present brick church. The corner stone was laid in 1919 yet by the late Rt. Rev. Peter Engl, O.S.B., Abbot of St. John’s Abbey, who had been delegated to the ceremony by the late Bishop O’Reilly of Fargo. For some months the basement was used for services, and then the upper structure was completed. It was later on blessed by Most Rev. Bishop O’Reilly of Fargo. The church in Balta is the first brick church in Pierce County and even today is one of the largest churches in the county. At that time the parish counted about 43 families.

5. What priests attended the place when it was a station? Where did they reside? The priests attending the original place were: Fr. John Burger O.S.B., Fr. Anthony Nussbaumer O.S.B., and Fr. Mathias Buttala. They had their residence in private homes and then also in the parsonage of the Fulda parish.

6. What was the nationality of the early Catholic population?

All the settlers of German blood.

7. When did the place first become a mission?

The old Selz Mission being the origin of the parish, it became a Mission in 1902.

8. Who attended it and from where?

It was attended by the Benedictine Fathers coming from Devils Lake and later Richardton Abbey.

9. When and by whom was the first church built?

The original church in Selz was built by Fr. John Burger O.S.B.

10. What was the cost of the first building?

The Selz church is said to have cost about $1,600.

11. Was the location of the church ever changed at any time?

In the year 1919, the town of Balta having founded and the settlement in and around the town getting stronger and stronger, the old Selz church was given up. The new church in Balta was built and the parish at last was transferred to its present location in Balta. This transference did not come to pass without some friction and serious misunderstandings. However, in the course of time the whole congregation saw the wisdom of transference and everybody felt content.

12. Give dates of construction and cost of succeeding church buildings.

The present parsonage and church were built in 1917 and 1919 respectively. Both buildings represent a value of about $50,000.

13. What happenned to former structures?

The old Mission church four miles northwest of the present church was broken down and the material was partly used for finishing and improving the new church; partly it was sold.

14. Approximate the number of souls when established as a Mission.

The old pioneers claim that there were not more than 150 souls when they began the church out in the country.

15. Date when place was established as a parish with a resident priest.

Balta became a fixed parish with a resident pastor in 1919.

16. Approximate the number of souls when established as a parish.

In 1919, so it is asserted by the old settlers, the congregation counted about 300 souls.

17. Names of resident Pastors.

a. Rev. Philipp Bahner O.S.B. 1919-1923.

b. Rev. Meinrad Seiffermann O.S.B. 1923-1927.

c. Rev. Msgr. Boniface J. Stuetz 1927 - 1956 (In 1950, Fr. Boniface Stuetz was invested with the robes of a Monsignor.)

Owing to the building of new church and parsonage, the parish suffered under a heavy financial burden. However, through the splendid work and the financial genius of Fr. Meinrad Seiffermann, the debt was almost paid when the latter was transferred to Minnesota. Greatest praise is due to Fr. Philipp and especially to Fr. Meinrad. The latter should be remembered as the "Savior" of the Balta parish! This also in a spiritual direction!

18. Give names of laymen who rendered notable services to the parish at any time and the nature of their services.

Among the outstanding laymen of the parish must be mentioned Mr. Paul A. Sand. Born in Minnesota, he had made his course of studies at St. John’s University. He graduated in 1908 and then followed a call of our Catholic people here in the same year. He was engaged as teacher in the school and as organist and choir-master in the church. His education well fitted him for such task. For many years Mr. Sand taught school and directed the choir at services. In all those years he had the welfare and interest of the community at heart and placed his full strength at its disposal. His advice also in civil and material matters is something which cannot be expressed in human values. Twice the County has elected him a member of the Legislature, where he served as chairman of the most important Committees. At the same time Mr. Sand took a very active part in the life of our Catholic organizations, serving as President of the State League of the Catholic Central Verein for two terms. His services were requested by other boards and Commissions of the State. Thus it must be said that the parish of Balta cannot be thought without the kindly and ever helpful personality of Paul Sand. May God bless him for his kindness and generosity and reward him. Financially and by donation of labor the parish was greatly assisted by the following:
Wilhelm Schaan, Valentine, Mathias, Sebastian, Joseph Schaan, John Job, Rochus Eisenzimmer, John Reinbold, Peter Fettig, Peter Vetsch, Xavier Goetz, Mike Schneider, Gabriel and Xavier Scheet, Jakob Schmalz, Clemens Klein, Mike Schall, Anton Klein, and Ferdinand Senger.

As faithful and loyal trustees have served in the years gone by: Anton Klein and Valentine Schaan, Mike Schall and John Krim, F.J. Axtmann and Joseph Schaan, Joseph Schaan and Frank Hagel, While Ned Axtmann and Vincent Schaan, the present trustees, follow the footsteps of their predecessors and ever try to be a help to both pastor and parish. For some years, the janitor-work was done free of charge by several members.

19. What stations were once attached to the present parish, but have been given up, or became missions or parishes?

A small mission station existed in the town of Fillmore, 12 miles east of Balta, but it was given up, because the people felt that with the automobile they could easily attend services here in Balta. The little church was then sold and the profit handed over to the parish.

20. What stations are now served from the Parish?

21. What missions were once attached to the present parish, but have either been given up, or have become missions to some other parish, or are now parishes?
Outside of the above mentioned Fillmore, there was none.

22. What missions are now served from the parish?

23. Present Church Building:

a. Date of construction, cost, architect, contractor, pastor.
The present church, erected under Fr. Philipp Bahner in 1919, was built according to plans furnished by an architect and engineer whose name we could no longer detect.

b. What is its seating capacity?
The church seats about 300 people.

c. Later additions and improvements? (Give cost and dates when made)
In 1928 the new sanctuary was added thereby the church remarkably enlarged, the tower or steeple was remodeled and built higher, a basement chapel for the winter was arranged, new pews, new side altars, electric lights and fixtures were installed, in 1938 the inside of the church was painted and varnished.

The cost of all these improvements was about 10,000 dollars.

24. School

The Sisters of Mercy from Devils Lake are in charge of the Public School. They teach in both grades and high-school. The first principal was Sr. M. Aquin, the present Mother Superioress of the Mercy Convent in Devils Lake. Sr. M. Berchmans is acting as principal at the present time.

25. None

26. None

27. The present parsonage erected in 1917, was built according to plans of craftsmen amongst the parishioners. Its cost was about $4,000.00.

Episodes, experiences, remarkable events, as related by pioneers of the present Balta Parish. Father John and Jakob Schmalz trapped in blizzard.

It was the fourth day of March 1906. Mr. Jakob Schmalz, one of the sturdy settlers of the Balta District had driven with his sleigh to the railroad station to get Father John Burger O.S.B. for services in the old “Selz Church”, which stood four miles north west of the present town of Balta. Fr. John O.S.B. had come from Devils Lake, where he resided in St. Gaul’s Monastery.

It was a bright and quiet winter day, not a cloud in the whole sky. Briskly the fiery horses trotted over the frozen prairie and lustily the sleigh glided over the snow drifts. While driving the priest and his friend, the farmer, engaged in a peaceful conversation. Traveling on, neither of the two men paid much attention to the road or environments. Trusting their good team of horses, they were sure that they would reach their destination the same as on former occasions.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, without the least warning, one of the terrible blizzards, as they occur on the Dakota prairies now and then, started up. In a few short minutes our travelers were enshrouded by a terrible storm. Gales of snow drifts and howling wind made seeing impossible. Everything was at once blotted out of sight, this so much so that not even the horses or the sleigh were any longer visible. Not suspecting such blizzard and having paid little or no attention to road and settlements, they soon did not know where they were.

For some time they let the horses take their own course and route, but soon they came under the impression that also these animals had lost their track. And thus the frightful reality of being lost in a snow storm dawned upon the priest and his companion. There they were on the lonely, thinly settled prairie, perhaps far away from their destination. In the end, they decided to unhitch the horses and wait the abating of the storm. But what a long time of waiting it meant and what a gruesome experience laid in store for them!

In order to have some protection against the stinging wind blasts, they turned over the sled box and crawled under it. The horses mean while had turned loose and had shifted off for themselves. The upturned box served as a haven for awhile, but soon the biting cold began to penetrate and stung into the two men under the box.

Hour after hour passed. The priest and the farmer recited their beads loud, over and over again. Hour after hour they tried to keep their courage alive. They sang hymns, talked and tried every possible means to keep the cold away. Slowly, slowly but surely they felt their worst enemy creeping into their shelter: drowsiness!

It was the drowsiness of certain death by freezing! Both felt like falling asleep and never to awake again! However, they also realized that they were now in imminent danger of death. Valiantly they fought off the terrible temptation. When one was on the point of falling asleep, the other would stir him up. So the hours went on end, they seemed eternity.

At last they decided to get out of their shelter, alas; they found that they were prisoners. The snow drifted and had piled up over them in high dunes. It was impossible to get out and free themselves. All hope seemed on the wane, but still they struggled on. Outside the night had passed and morning had come since some hours. A farmer who lived nearby stepped out of his house in the morning, and to his surprise saw the end of a neck yoke sticking out of the snow. Not remembering that he had left a wagon outside, he went to investigate. Climbing the huge snow drift he came upon the upturned sled box, he heard voices underneath. Working swiftly, he cleared the snow away and helped our trapped prisoners out of their threatening tomb. What a surprise for Father John and Jakob Schmalz! All these many hours they had not been more than 50 feet away from the farm house and looking further they saw the steeple of the “Selz Church” about a quarter of a mile in the distance!

Their courage and bravery and last but not least, their trust in God’s providence and the help of the Blessed Mother, had saved their lives.This near tragedy is evidence of the courage, but also piety and intelligence of the early pioneers.

Today Jakob Schmalz enjoys telling his experience with Father John O.S.B.
His everlasting refrain in telling the story is this:
It was the most frightful night of my life, but I thank God for it. In that night, I came to know what a good pious priest is and I had a perfect insight into the beautiful and devout soul of that priest. If anyone wishes to know the true character of a priest, let him come to me and I can tell him.

Saying this, our friend Jakob drops his ever present smile and tears fill his eyes!

2. Purchase of the first bell for the Selz Church, near Balta.

The Catholic settlers had built under the guidance of Fr. John Burger O.S.B. their first church four miles north west of Balta. They called the locality the Selz church. Everything was pretty well finished and the church was fairly well equipped, but a bell was still missing. A bell the settlers would not miss, its chimes should brighten the lonely prairie. But there was little or no money to buy one.

Amongst the settlers was a well to do rancher by the name of Jakob Scheet. He stood up after church on a Sunday and announced that he would donate his best steer towards the purchase of a bell, provided the parishioners would auction it off. The offer was accepted. On the next occasion the husky animal was led into the ring of the assembled settlers, the bidding began and became so heated that in the end the sum was rather high. It was plenty for the bell. And so today the old pioneers remark smilingly: A steer had to pay our first bell!

3. How household and kitchen goods were bought.

Say the old settlers: In our early days we knew nothing of government help and there was no “Relief”. Yet we needed clothes, flour, a few pounds of sugar and what not. Also, then it was a nice thing to have just a quarter of money in the pocket. What did we do? For days we roamed over the prairie and collected the bleached bones of the buffalo. These we brought to the store which was far away.

It took days and days to collect a load, which meant a wagon box full. For a respective load we received from three to nine dollars worth of groceries and these groceries we had to get in a store which was 35 miles way from our settlement! And we got along and we were healthy and strong!

4. Babylonian confusion and language.

The railroad was building a new road. Our German settlers were given an opportunity to work. All the other workmen already engaged were also of German origin and hailed from every German realm between the Danube and the North Sea. Our German Russian settlers were consequently thrown together with these sons of the Fatherland. Alas! The Swabian had a hard time to understand his brother hailing from Westfalia and our German Russian settlers could understand neither of them. A meeting was held and it was decided that an interpreter should be elected. The lot fell upon our old pioneer Peter Vetsch, now in Balta. Mr. Vetsch had been raised near the Black Sea and had seen a good deal of school. He was supposed to understand all the different dialects. However, instead of making matters better, things became worse. When the interpreter spoke of cheese, the others understood chalk and the end was an incomprehensible jargon and confusion. Yet, they worked together in all harmony and peace! Time proved to be the best teacher and interpreter in the long run!

5. Traveling in the early days on shank’s pony!

While homesteading near the South Dakota border line it was found that commodities were getting rather short. There was no team or wagon to be had. So the settlers dispatched three of their strongest and bravest men to town to buy the necessities. However, the next town with a store was 75 miles away. They were compelled to make this stretch on foot. Each one armed himself with a strong club and the march began. After the first days journey they reached an old straw stack and they decided to use it for their nights quarters. Tired and weary they soon slept soundly. In the middle of the night one of them awoke and heard a noise. “A snake, a snake, a big snake, wake up!” he yelled into the dreary night. At once our three heroes were on the alert, jumped out of the straw and grasped their ominous clubs. Ready for any emergency they stood around the old straw pile the whole night as if riveted to the ground. Whether it was determination or will power, none of them dared make a move. However, snake they saw none. When at last morning dawned they got the surprise of their lives! Near the resting place of one of our heroes, a little prairie mouse crept out of the straw and squeaked lustily in the cool morning air.

Seeing their enemy, their trance was broken and without saying one word, they started upon a fast and steady run until the straw pile was out of sight. Then they stood and looked back with frightened eyes upon the spot of their nightly adventure. Marching on they at last finished their journey of 75 miles! However, before returning home each one pledged himself to keep absolute silence so as not to become the laughing stock of the whole settlement. But since humans are human, the vow was broken some way or other and the event made the round from Dan to Bersheeba! He who has the scath has also the scorn!

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