A Brief History Of The People And Parish of Saints
Peter and Paul Church, Strasburg, ND
By Jerry Klein, Jr.
Reprinted with permission from the book, Saints Peter and Paul's Parish: Centennial Book 1889 - 1989, Strasburg, ND, published by the Centennial Committee, Strasburg, ND, 1989.
For additional information about Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church and Strasburg, North Dakota, consult the following sources: 1) Strasburg's Historic Church, North Dakota Horizons, Winter, 1997; 2) As We Reminisce: Strasburg, Emmons County, North Dakota, 1967; 3) Moments to Remember, 1976; 4) Saints Peter and Paul Parish Golden Jubilee Book, 1948; 5) Saints Peter and Paul's Parish Centennial Book 1889 - 1989: Strasburg, North Dakota, 1989.
No history of the People who started the parish of SS. Peter and Paul at Strasburg, North Dakota would be complete without a brief survey of background information. For these hardy pioneers certainly did not appear out of the ground in the spring of 1889. Nor were their German language and customs something new. Their's is an old and fascinating story.
It takes us back in time to the late eighteenth century, and the Rhineland Plain of Central Europe, where their forebears had lived for centuries. Here in the German-speaking French province of Alsace (spelled "Elsass" by the Germans), and the neighboring lands of Baden and the Rheinpfalz, the people had suffered greatly through the French Revolution. The reign of Napoleon, and the wars that accompanied it, took a great toll on these simple village people. While their chief goals in life were to raise their families in peace, farming the land, or working as artisans and tradesmen, their lives were filled instead with social, political, and economic upheaval and oppression.
It was no wonder that when Czar Alexander of Russia issued an invitation, in 1803, to enable farmers and craftsmen to settle the sparsely populated Steppes above the Black Sea, scores of Alsatian families, and families from the closely related neighboring German lands responded to his offer. Despite the fact that French authorities soon forbade out-going migration, the desire to own land under more favorable conditions pushed these hopeful colonists onward. Emigration was halted briefly, due to the military campaigns being waged by Napoleon. But by the year 1808, despite these obstacles, migration continued again.
On the Alsatian side of the Rhine, French officials tried in vain to halt the movement of people. But if the restless Alsatians were forbidden to emigrate through the proper channels, they simply disposed of their property discretely, and slipped out of the country by night, availing themselves of the cover of darkness and paths that were seldom traveled.
Germany did not exist as a unified nation at the time. The peasants of northern Baden and the south Palatinate (Rheinpfalz) weren't much better off than their Alsatian neighbors. In fact, some areas of the south Palatinate had come under French Rule at this time. Weary of war and economic hardship, many sought greener pastures on the Russian Steppe.
And so, families carrying the names of Baumgartner, Voller, Baumann, Keller, Scherr, Welk, Dosch, Hager, Klein, Kramer, Schwab, Wolf, Schneider, Wagner, Gross, Vetter, Feist, Kraft, Schwan, Roehrich, Mastel, Hulm, Burgad, Braunagel, Wald, and many others, said farewell to their friends and families in the ancestral homeland and began the long, nearly two thousand mile journey to South Russia. Along with others from several German states, they vanished into the east, part of a large migration of Germans to Russia. We today can only guess at the heartbreak they must have felt, as they left familiar faces and surroundings for the vast, treeless, empty, and as yet uncultivated Russian Steppe.
The Russian Period
When our forefathers settled in Russia, they were given land that had been won by Russia in a series of conflicts with the Turks. Here they were organized into colonies that were most often religiously homogeneous. Hence, the fact that most of the people that eventually settled around Strasburg, North Dakota were Roman Catholics is no mere coincidence. Their ancestors had been the founders of Catholic villages in Russia before them. The Kurschurgan Colonies near Odessa on the Black Sea were all Catholic, as was eventually the Bessarabian colony of Krasna, and the Crimean Colony of Rosenthal.
In Russia, as in Central Europe, these people all lived in villages and traveled by foot or by wagon to work in the outlying fields. Families owned their homes in heredity, and the Crown Land was owned by each community and allotted to individual households and passed on by heredity. In addition, communal pastureland was held in common.
The Russian authorities were poorly prepared for the arrival of thousands of German immigrants. And as a result, things got off to a rough start in the colonies. Before the settlements were even laid out, many of the settlers died as a result of disease bred in crowded, unhealthy, temporary housing. The first attempts at farming on the virgin Steppe were hampered by a lack of decent farm implements. It took several decades for these hardy people to turn this area of Russia into the breadbasket of Europe. But that's exactly what they helped to achieve. By 1860 the colonies were flourishing and were basically selfªsufficient from a material standpoint. Fertile soil and a good growing climate, combined with much hard work, enabled the Germans in Russia to provide themselves with almost everything they needed to live, from the food on their tables to the wine in their glasses. They became models of industry for their Russian countrymen; and early on, Czar Alexander I was justifiably proud of his German Colonies.
But all was not to remain well for the German-Russians. In 1871 the Russian government took away the privileges that had been enjoyed by them as a condition of their colonizing. Soon their young men were compelled to serve in the Russian Army, and their children were made to learn the Russian language in their schools. Restlessness among the people would have come anyway, for their numbers had increased so dramatically during the decades of colonization in Russia, that they were running out of available land to buy for the establishment of new daughter colonies. But the policy changes instituted by the Russian Czar caused some of these Germans to look across the sea for a better future. America, with its immense plains and the promise of free land in a free country caused many to consider leaving Russia. In the Kutschurgan villages of Strassburg, Kandel, Selz, Baden, Mannheim, and Elsass, in the village of Krasna in nearby Bessarabia, and in Rosenthal of the Crimea, as well as throughout the other German colonies in Russia, a migratory tide was beginning to swell.
Migration to the New World
So in the fall of 1888, five young men, all of them single, arrived in Dakota Territory to scout the land and its prospects. They were to then report back to the German colony of Strassburg, Russia, from which they'd been sent. They came as far as Eureka, which was the nearest railhead at the time, and then made their way across the open prairie to what is now Emmons County, North Dakota. What they found was empty grassland. Not a house or human being as far as the eye could see, except for the lonely farmstead of a Mr. Petrie. He later became a well known businessman of the pioneer era in Linton. But there was plenty of good land for themselves and their kinsmen back in Russia upon which to settle.
These "Kundschafter" (scouts) returned to Eureka with a favorable report. Here they spent the winter, having sent word to their friends and families in Russia, urging them to come to the New World.
Not surprisingly, the surnames of these five scouts are still well represented in the parish of SS. Peter and Paul today. All of them, but one, eventually helped to build the town of Strasburg, North Dakota and lived out their days here. The five were:
Sebastian Bauman who homesteaded northwest of town and married Katharina Kraft. They had ten children, and many of their descendants live in Emmons County today.
Joseph Baumgartner filed for a homestead, and eventually married Katharina Schneider (a different one than Mr. Bauman married of course!). They raised a large family, several of whom are still living, including Mrs. Magdalena Schwab and Mrs. Martha (Swertie) Wagner of Strasburg. The descendants in Emmons County and elsewhere are numerous.
Josef Burgad was also a homesteader. He married Margaretta, a sister of Joseph Baumgartner. They too reared a big family, as did most people in those days around Strasburg. Descendants of the Burgad pioneers are still well represented in the area.
Jacob Feist homesteaded for a while. But his interest soon turned to the mercantile business. He and Egidi Keller started the old Strasburg Bazaar out at the original Tiraspol (called after the Russian town of the same name) site, and moved it in 1902 to the present town site. He and his wife, Barbara Wald, also had a good sized family.
Josef Kraft took up a homestead near Strasburg. In 1902 he moved to Harvey, North Dakota. He was married to Rosina Fischer, the mother of their eight children.
This group of scouts spent the long winter months awaiting the arrival of their kinsmen from the colony of Strassburg. Finally they came in the spring, and the first group stocked their ox-drawn wagons with their worldly belongings and provisions and set out for the north. They arrived in the "Tiraspol" area at about mid-day on May 7, 1889, and that same day began to build the simple earthen huts that would be their first dwellings.
It was not a pretty sight that greeted them on that day. For shortly before their arrival, a prairie fire had roared through this region leaving little behind, but earth and stone. To make matters worse, that first night became quite cold, and a rain storm passed through the area which compelled the travel-weary settlers to pull the boxes from their wagons, turn them upside down, and get under them for shelter from the wet and cold. Today we can scarcely imagine how they felt, huddled together in utter darkness on the cold, charred earth, with the heavens raining down upon them. Surely they must have felt at that moment that God had abandoned them completely; and it would be best to retrace their steps the next day and get back to Russia, where there were homes and friends and warming fires!
But warmer days did come, so these hardy folk could put themselves into the tasks of building sod houses and planting that first small crop, just as their ancestors had on the empty steppe of Russia a few generations earlier. The first crop was poor, and what little flax they could cut was blown away by wind. So they resorted to pulling the rest by hand. The meager crop then had to be carted 50 miles to Eureka, which was the nearest place to buy or sell goods. It was a tedious journey, indeed, over the lonely prairie by ox-drawn wagon. There were no rest stops. Nor was there even a road!
The first settlers came to the Strasburg area in two groups that spring. The first arrived on May 7, and the second somewhat later. The first were the ones that got rain-drenched. That initial group included the following families:
Franz Baumgartner and Margaretta Thomas. Franz was a church organist in Strassburg, Russia; and he was the first to serve in that capacity, when the parish of SS. Peter and Paul was established.
Jakob Baumgartner and Christina Scherr. They farmed their homestead and raised a family. Jakob was a brother to Franz.
Johannes Baumgartner and Margaretta Braunagel. He was known as "der Alte Johannes". They homesteaded and supported a large family. Johannes was an older brother of Franz and Jakob, and the father of Joseph Baumgartner, one of the five scouts sent here from Russia in 1888.
Kaspar Feist and Katharina Feist. They were homesteaders and farmers with a big family. For those who may wonder, Feist was Katharina's maiden name, as well as her married name.
Albinus Schneider and Agatha Voller. Mr. & Mrs. Schneider homesteaded and farmed, moving to town in their later years. They too raised a big family.
The second group, which arrived shortly afterwards, was comprised of these families:
Jakob and Katharina Gefroh. They farmed here until 1902, when they moved to Karlsruhe, North Dakota.
Franz Giesinger and Katharina Lauinger. They took up a homestead and farmed.
Egidi Keller and Agatha Wald. They initially homesteaded. Mr. Keller was one of the founders of the Strasburg Bazaar, and he was the first postmaster at Strasburg.
Peter Kraft and Katharina Wald. Mr. & Mrs. Kraft farmed and raised a family on their homestead.
Lorenz Schwab and Regina Wald. They homesteaded northeast of town. Mr. Schwab was an accordion player in Strasburg's early days. Regina was a sister to Mrs. Egidi Keller and Mrs. Peter Kraft above.
Martin Schwab and Katharina Schneider. They were the parents of Lorenz Schwab, above. In 1902, they moved to the Karlsruhe area where they lived out their days.
These were the first pioneers to come the prairie of what would soon become Strasburg, North Dakota. But they were certainly not the last. As letters were sent back home to Russia, more and more colonists sold their holdings and booked passage for America. The tide of immigrants did not cease until 1914, when the First World War made the journey all but impossible.
Those early settlers lived on the bare edge of survival, because the first two harvest seasons were not at all good. When they had arrived in Dakota Territory, the great teeming herds of buffalo that had once grazed the northern plains, had been wiped out. But many buffalo bones still littered across the prairie. In that early time of desperate poverty, the people would spend all day long, scavenging the countryside for these buffalo bones. They would then haul buffalo bones to Steele or Napoleon, where a wagonload might fetch enough of a price to buy a sack of flour. This was enough to survive on. And for now, meat was only a delicious memory from the past.
The thick-walled adobe block type of construction with which they built their homes had served their forefathers well in Russia. Here too on the prairie, these simple earthen dwellings stayed cool during the hot summer months, and they provided better than average insulation and shelter from the icy wind and chill of winter. With Beaver Creek as the nearest source of wood for burning, the pioneers made good use of a skill they'd learned in Russia. That of forming cattle manure into clean burning bricks of fuel for their stoves. This "Brennmist" served them well in those first years.
A sack of flour, a sack of sugar, and a bag of coffee were the staples of life back then. With a bit of salt, some fresh cream and butter, and whatever vegetables had been grown in that year's garden, the stalwart Hausfrau of the day must use her imagination and culinary skills to create meals that were both tasty and nourishing. Many variations of these earlier recipes are still served in German-Russian homes today. The test of time has vouched for their simple goodness. And the noodle is still king in most Strasburg kitchens!
The Mission Church at Tiraspol
In 1889, not long after the arrival of the first settlers, they were visited by a Benedictine Monk from Conception Abbey, Missouri. He was here serving the Indians at Fort Yates on the west side of the Missouri River. When Father Bernhard Strassmeier heard that this group of German-Russian Catholics had settled in the region, he decided to make the 26 mile journey to visit them and tend to their spiritual needs. Apparently he had difficulty convincing these farm families that he was a priest until he showed them his altar and mass equipment. Thereafter, then on the visiting priests were greeted with deepest respect and reverence. The people would gather from far and wide, kneeling down and kissing the hands of the priests. For to them, the frontier missionaries were consecrated messengers from God who brought the nurturing power of the sacraments with them.
At times, Father Bernhard's brother monk, young Deacon Franz Gerschwyler (who later was ordained a priest), would accompany him on the long journey from Ft. Yates and assist in ministering to the settlement. Since there was as yet no church, mass was held in a private home. Here the good Fathers would look after the spiritual needs of the community, baptizing infants, performing marriages, visiting the sick and aged, and teaching the Word of God.
The first mass was celebrated in the fall of 1889 at the home of Franz Baumgartner. During this time, North Dakota became a state. At such occasions the people would come from all directions. After mass they would have some lunch and make "Maistube", catching up on the local news. As evening approached, they returned to their scattered farmsteads spiritually refreshed. A social people by nature, it must have been hard for them to say good-bye at the end of the day. Life on isolated homesteads was quite different to what they'd known in Russia, where everyone lived in town. Such were the conditions of the Homestead Act, however.
For almost three years, Frs. Bernhard and Franz had been making the trip over from the reservation to minister to the mission of St. John's parish, near Zeeland in McIntosh County, the new fledgling congregation at Strassburg, and another neighboring site of Kutschurgan settlement called Elsass (after the Russian town of that name). The name of "Elsass" was later changed to "Hague" by railroad officials.
When Fr. Henry Schmitz was assigned to St. John's parish in 1889 as the first resident priest there, Strasburg became the mission of that parish. The Benedictine Monks from Fort Yates, Fr. Bernard and Fr. Franz, beyond obligation, continued to visit the Strasburg mission on occasion. However, the congregation was now under the pastorate of Fr. Schmitz, a diocesal priest.
When Fr. Schmitz died in 1892, Fr. Joachim Widmer, a Benedictine Monk from St. Meinrad's Abbey in Indiana, came to St. John's parish. He continued to serve the mission at Strasburg; and he built the first church northeast of the present day city in 1893, with the help of Fr. Bernard and Fr. Franz. The project cost $l,200.00 to build this church, but in those days that was much money. Only by convincing a kind neighbor to loan them $600.00 to get started, were the parishioners able to get the project under way. Peter Miller, who was a financially capable member of the Holy Trinity Parish at Krassna, provided the step-up funds. Most of the settlers at Krassna were Bessarabian Germans. And their lives have been closely linked more in America with the Kutschurganer fammilies of Strasburg. Thus, most people are no longer aware of their different and fascinating backgrounds.
It didn't take long to build the church, and in that same year of 1893 the building was finished. Saints Peter and Paul were chosen as the patrons.
In 1895 Fr. Widmer was replaced at St. John's parish by another monk from St. Meinrad's Abbey, Fr. Stephan Stenger. He continued to serve the mission of SS. Peter and Paul. In January of 1899, Prior Vincent Wehrle sent one of his monks from St. Gall's Priory at Devils Lake to help Fr. Stenger with the Strassburg mission. Father Benedict Peter became the first resident pastor here. He stayed on the Peter Keller farm which was near the church. Plans were that Fr. Benedict would reside with Fr. Widmer at St. John's parish and continue to serve Strassburg as a mission. But on his first visit, he decided that Strassburg should have a resident priest and be established as a full-fledged parish.
This, of course, presented the Strassburg congregation with the task of providing their first priest with his own rectory. They immediately started the project. Fr. Benedict drew the plans for the rectory himself. And once they'd gotten the $700.00 worth of materials at Wishek, 40 miles distant, the parishioners donated the necessary labor to build the house. Fr. Benedict himself supervised the project and served as chief carpenter. He was a multi-talented man. One of his many accomplishments as a priest was to write a catechism for the Lakota Indians in their native language.
Fr. Benedict was recalled on the 6th of January in 1900, and was replaced by Fr. Josef Thuille, also a Benedictine from St. Gall's Priory. He was known for his excellent sermons.
Fr. Thuille left in June of 1903, while Fr. Benedict returned on an interim basis to fill his vacancy for the summer. In September, another monk was sent from Devils Lake. Fr. Justus Schweizer served here until the fall of 1906. Unfortunately, he had to contend with a continuing controversy that had arisen in the parish during his time of service.
The Railroad and the Birth of Strasburg
As yet, there was no town of Strasburg as such. The farms near the church, and the small store run by Jakob Feist and Egidi Keller hardly constituted a town. Strassburg was more of a rural parish. But in the spring of 1902, a spur of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul Railroad was built about 2-1/2 miles southwest of the location of the parish of SS. Peter and Paul. In the fall of that year, the first trains began to run. Jakob Feist and Egidi Keller decided to move their store closer to the railroad. Businesses began to grow in that new location; thus, the town of Strasburg was born. An interesting side note: The spelling for the town was originally "Strassburg" with double "s". The railroad had decided to name this new town Stafford. But the citizens petitioned officials to keep the original name that honored their former home in Russia, which had been named for the old city of Strassburg (or Strasbourg as the French spell it) in Alsace on the Rhine River. The railroad agreed, but somewhere one of the s's was dropped, and today we have the American spelling of "Strasburg".
As the budding town began to grow and prosper, the problem became obvious. Its church was located 2-1/2 miles way! And so a bitter argument began over whether or not the church should be moved to town. Some said yes, and others said no. And soon the parish was torn asunder with contentious quarreling. The Bishop was finally called in to mediate the dispute. And with the authority of the Apostolic Succession, he directed Fr. Schweizer in 1906 to have the church moved to town. As is the case when convictions are deeply held, this did not end the matter. Bad feelings continued on both sides of the issue.
The church was transported safely to its new location. But the rectory did not fare so well. It broke in half as it was pulled across the railroad tracks. There it sat, a graphic parallel to the division in the parish, the two halves, barely connected, one on either side of the rails.At this point a train came along. Seeing no other way around the problem the engineer stopped the train, and then decided he could get through safely. By doing this, he severed the remaining connection. Eventually the pieces were brought to the intended site next to the church, and with a good deal of work the building was put back together again. However, divisions among the parishioners were not so easily healed. And in the fall of 1906 Fr. Schweizer was recalled, leaving Strasburg without a pastor for several months.
During this "cooling off" period, many of the people came to regret their self-destructive arguing. Abbot Vincent Wehrle came to Strasburg from the Abbey at Richardton to hold New Year's Services. He took the opportunity to plead with the people to forgive each other, forget the past, and put an end to strife. He told them that if they would do this, he'd appoint one of his best priests as new pastor at SS. Peter and Paul Parish. Some of the families had already left the parish and joined the new congregation at Rosenthal some miles northeast of Strasburg. But the remaining parishioners were able to bind up their wounds and heal their differences.
Abbot Wehrle was true to his word. And on January 15, 1907, Fr. Alois Strigl, a Benedictine Monk of Assumption Abbey became the new pastor. This good man accomplished much in bringing the community back to unity. Before long he had embarked on the project of building a larger, more durable church for the rapidly growing parish. More families were added as the parish roster continued to swell with new immigrants from Russia, plus the grown up sons and daughters of the original settlers who were beginning to raise families of their own.
The New Church
Fr. Alois wrestled with the vision of a new church, realizing full well that it would be a major undertaking. He put his trust in God and sought the support of the community. This he received, for in spite of their faults, the founders of Strasburg were a deeply religious people and were eager to build a beautiful and lasting house of worship for themselves and their descendants.
Therefore, Abbot Wehrle designated the site for the present church.
Abbot Wehrle and Fr. Schweizer borrowed John Keller's wagon and
horses, and they personally brought in the first
load of rock to be used in the construction of the foundation. Excavation of the basement was begun in September of 1909. By the following spring, work had progressed to the point that the foundation was ready for the laying of the cornerstone.
Now, it was Bishop Vincent Wehrle of the newly formed (3/21/10) Diocese of Bismarck, who returned to Strasburg to bless and lay the cornerstone. It was a proud day in the history of Strasburg parsh. But this progress must have been particularly gratifying for Bishop Wehrle. Born in the village of Berg, in the Canton of St. Gall, Switzerland in 1855, he came to the United States not long after his ordination to the priesthood in 1882. Young Fr. Wehrle came to Dakota territory in 1887 and eventually to Jamestown when the Diocese of North Dakota was established in late 1889. He came to love this part of the country and its people, believing very strongly in the future of the region. In those early days he traveled the prairie on horseback, by ox team, or on foot when necessary, often spending the night under the open sky wrapped in his buffalo robe. There was a time when he was the only active priest in North Dakota between Devils Lake and the Montana state boundry! Fr. Wehrle was here, when the prairies of western North Dakota were tilled for the first time. He established St. Gall's Priory at Devils Lake, and founded Assumption Abbey at Richardton. And in a very special and personal way he was instrumental in the successful establishment of SS. Peter and Paul Parish during those early critical, and formative years. He served as the first Bishop of Bismarck for 29 years, having been appointed to that holy office by Pope Pius X. By the time of his death at the age of nearly 86 years in 1941, he had witnessed the beginning of almost every church institution, hospital, parish, and school in the western diocese of North Dakota. He watched life change from wild frontier to prosperous farm country.
Work on the new church continued to progress rapidly. And by the middle of October, 1910 the outside of the building had nearly been completed. Fr. Alois was recalled to Richardton at this time due to failing health. He was replaced by Fr. Max Speckmaier who began to say mass and hold catechism classes in the church basement in November. Just before Christmas, a frenzy of work was done to install the inner furnishings. Pews, pulpit, communion railing, and the high altar were put up in time for the first mass which was Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 1910. The church was nearly filled for this happy and glorious occasion. And on Christmas Day, the crowd was so large that people were heard to comment that the church should have been built about 20 feet longer. Fr. Alois had wanted to build a slightly bigger church initially, and some of the young men of the parish were in favor of spending an additional $1,000.00 to build a higher tower. This would have been in keeping with the original plans drawn up by the architect, Mr. Anton Dohmen of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But the elders of the congregation feared that if the young men had their way, they'd build another tower of Babel! And so, the church was made shorter and the tower lower. The seating capacity remained at 900. The finished product, as it stands to this day is 128 feet long, 50 feet wide with a 70 foot transept, and has a tower of 85 feet in height.
This beautiful structure remains one of the larger and more ornate churches in the state of North Dakota. And it stands as a fitting symbol of gratitude from a hard©working pioneer people to their God, whom they acknowledged as the provider of all the good things they achieved and enjoyed. The construction of the new church had cost about $45,000.00. By the time of completion, $24,000.00 in debt remained. But this was quickly reduced by the parishioners who were all assessed a special amount, and in addition gave freely and generously to put the finishing touches on the building. Thus, the angels on either side of the high altar were obtained, as well as the lovely stained glass windows, side altars and confessionals ($1,500.00), and various statues. The beautiful pipe organ cost $3,700.00. In time the Stations Of The Cross were purchased for a price of $700.00. A second bell was added to the tower. Two women of the parish each donated $100.00 for the Altar of the Sorrowful Mother in one of the rear side chapels. The Holy Sepulcher was provided in time for the first Holy Week services, because Fr. Max had simply mentioned that it would be well to have one for that special season.
The prices for all of these items and for the construction itself don't seem like much by today's dollar values. But make no mistake about cost. The founding families of SS. Peter and Paul Parish gave these sums, when the dollar bought much more than it does now. These parishioners gave freely, generously, and out of love. The succeeding generations should always remember these good souls in their prayers, and each time they have the privilege of attending mass in this beautiful church.
Big as the new church was, it was not large enough to contain the huge crowd of Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who came for joyful celebration on June 29, 1911, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Bishop Wehrle blessed the new church with a Solemn Pontifical High Mass on that day. A large number of parish children also received the Sacrament of Confirmation on this special occasion.
The Ursulines Come to Strasburg
Children have always been a treasured part of the Strasburg community. And a solid Catholic education was a high priority in the early years of the parish. It had long been the wish of Bishop Wehrle to have some of the Ursuline Sisters come over from Germany to teach at Strasburg. The Ursuline Order had been founded by St. Angela primarily for the education of youth. This was the work in which the sisters under her rule were to specialize. The Bishop's long cherished wish came to fruition when the first three, Sisters Hildegard, Edith, and Philiberta arrived at Linton by train on September 21, 1910, and were driven by horse team to Strasburg. They were welcomed on that rain-soaked evening with thunder and lightening!
Their first quarters were temporary in nature. The Gabriel Marbach family was away in Europe for a year, and had agreed to let the sisters use their home while they were gone. It was from these humble beginnings that the Ursulines started their teaching ministry in the new church basement which had been partitioned into classrooms. This was the only parish school in the area at the time, and the student population grew rapidly. School started that year with 70 students, but by the end of the school year there were 170. The numbers continued to increase.
The curriculum in those days was practical and basic. Classes were taught in English, but there were also courses in the German language, since the daily speech of home and commerce in Strasburg was mostly German. Young girls were taught the practical skills of the day for women, cooking, sewing, and knitting. And of course religious instruction was given to the children, outside of regular school hours.
It soon became apparent that the sisters would require more permanent quarters of their own. Since it was no longer being used, Fr. Max suggested to convert the old church to a home for the sisters. He called a meeting of the parish men on March 12, 1911 to discuss his proposal. They agreed to the concept of turning the old wood frame building over to the sisters. But when he asked who would be willing to donate labor and money to make the interior livable, the silence was deafening! Naturally, these people had already sacrificed greatly toward the construction of the new church. Some were probably simply "tapped out". He asked those to leave who did not wish to help, and his hopes must have dimmed as he watched most of those present get up and quietly walk out of the church basement.
But there was a strong core group of supporters remaining. They soon pledged $l,100.00 and labor to the project. This was strong start. And so, Fr. Max went back to the sisters and struck a bargain. The parish would provide $2,000.00 for the re-modeling, if the sisters themselves would make up the difference needed. At that point the building would become the property of the Ursulines. They agreed, and the work began almost immediately. By the following spring, renovation was finished, and the nuns moved in on April 2, 1912. The parish debt for its share of the project still remained. This troubled Fr. Max, so he called the first church fair ever to be held in the parish. With the proceeds, he was able to cancel the debt. Bishop Wehrle came from Bismarck on June 28, 1912, to bless the house and chapel, dedicating them to St. Anthony.
Because of the continued growth of the community, more and more sisters came to live and teach at Strasburg. There were 19 sisters here at the highest point. But before that, the sisters took in as many as 30 children from the surrounding farming community as boarders during the school year. Twelve dollars per month was the cost for board and tuition at the Ursuline Convent, including laundry and private lessons. And when a child went home for the weekends, the monthly charge was reduced to $10.00. How things have changed! Widespread ownership of automobiles eventually made boarding unnecessary.
Meanwhile, the old rectory didn't appear adequate standing next to the majestic new church. In 1914, the parishioners decided to spend $15,000.00 for building a new rectory. Peter Moser won the contract to build the two story, fourteen room structure, which was to have running water and a steam heating system. Thus the parishioners presented their beloved pastor with a fine, modern home. Only because of the wholesome pride that they had in their parish community, were they so generous.
The Cemetery Is Moved to Town
When the parish purchased a 30 acre parcel of land from the Milwaukee Land Company at the very fair price of $l,700.00, one parishioner gave $500.00, and others gave according to their means. The balance was eventually paid off, mostly from the proceeds of another church fair. This land was used partially for the convent grounds, and also for the new cemetery almost two blocks northwest of the church. The old cemetery on the original church site east of town (known as the Tiraspol Cemetery) was then ordered closed, and the Bishop stipulated that no one else was to be buried there. Most of the remains of those who'd been buried in the old cemetery were eventually re©interred in the new cemetery.
Consecration of the Church and Development of St. Ben's School
Since the church could not be consecrated until it was free of debt, paying off the debt became the next priority. This was accomplished through some legal maneuvering by which the debt was transferred to other church property through the use of a new mortgage. At this time, the only consecrated church in the entire diocese was the monastery church at Richardton. So on June 28, 1916, Bishop Wehrle was again in Strasburg, this time to officiate at the consecration of the church. He was joined by twenty-five priests, Ursuline sisters, and thousands of lay people. This event topped even the blessing of the church five years previous, as the most meaningful and joyful occasion in the history of SS. Peter and Paul Parish.
While the new church was being built, Fr. Max already was formulating ideas about building a separate school facility. By 1913, all eight grades of study were being offered; and the church basement was rapidly becoming inadequate to meet the educational needs of the parish.
Finally by 1917, they were able to begin construction on St. Benedict's School, which took over a year to build and cost about $50,000.00. The people really struggled to achieve this project because they had the debt to contend with, as well as the continual cost of operating a parochial school. It took nearly ten years to cancel the debt.
Fr. Max Speckmaier resigned as pastor as SS. Peter and Paul Parish
in 1918 and moved on to new work as pastor at Glen Ullin, North
Dakota. His place was taken by Fr. Anton Nussbaumer, who, like
his predecessor, was a Benedictine Monk from Assumption Abbey.
Fr. Anton served in Strasburg during the prosperous 1920's and worked hard to reduce the parish debts. After nine years, he too moved on. And in 1927 Fr. Clemence Dimple, a Benedictine Monk of St. John's Abbey in Minnesota came to Strasburg as pastor. But he only stayed a few months, while parishioners became quite attached to him. They would have forcibly kept him here, if possible; but his duties called him elsewhere. In 1927, the first high school seniors graduated from St. Ben's High School. Classes had been attempted in 1920, but were abandoned because there weren't enough students. In 1923 they gave it another try, and this time the program was successful. Those first four graduates in 1927 were: John J. Baumgartner, Jr., Aloysius Kopp, Tillie Lipp, and Math P. Moszer.
In June of 1927, Fr. Augustine Fox, an Assumption Abbey Benedictine Monk, took reins as pastor and served for nearly twenty years. He immediately went to work on the $6,000.00 debt remaining on the school. He was able to erase the debt with the proceeds of a church fair. Now the parish was once again free of debt and could concentrate on some remodeling and repair projects that were becoming necessary as years passed. Father was able to raise nearly $6,000.00 more through another church fair the following year. These funds went toward the purchase of some additional statues, and re-decorating of the church interior.
The years of the Great Depression were devastating to the country. And Strasburg was no different. The "Dirty Thirties" saw many people leave the area in search of work. During this time, the parochial and public schools were combined. The parish itself was in fairly good shape financially, and the people had the strong consolation of their faith through the hard times. Thus, they were able to persevere until better days returned.
The War Years and Beyond
In 1940, Fr. Florian Fairbanks, O.S.B., was sent to assist Fr. Augustine who was no longer able to carry the burden of his pastoral duties alone. He had pastored the congregation through the difficult years of World War II. But his health took a serious turn for the worse after the war. In March of 1947, Fr. Fox formally retired to Assumption Abbey at Richardton. He had completed many years of dedicated service, since leaving his German homeland. He passed to his eternal rest in November, 1947.
Another Benedictine, Fr. Charles Daleiden, became pastor after Fr. Fox was transferred in August of 1947; He was replaced as assistant by Fr. Matthew Fettig, O.S.B. Now that the depression and war years were behind them, the parishioners could address some overdue work that needed to be done on the buildings of this once again thriving parish. Strasburg was fortunate to have the Notre Dame Sisters, who had come to replace the Ursulines in 1942. Ownership of the convent had reverted back to the parish. The Notre Dame nuns also specialize in education. They very capably filled the agenda of the Ursulines at the parish-owned school which was being operated as a "Special Public School". When the financial burden of the parochial school met head on with the depression in 1931, the school was leased to the School District, but continued to be staffed in part by the sisters. This arrangement, which was beneficial to the parish and the community at large continued until 1960. The parish was out of debt, and with the convent and schools functioning fine, some attention could be given to the church building.
In 1948, the poor church mice were displaced when the old wood floor, which had served since 1910, was removed from the church basement and replaced with concrete. This renovation work was done free of charge by the Hagart Construction Company, since being awarded the contract for installing the new sewer system. The ceiling too was ripped out at this time and replaced with "Nuwood". New fluorescent lighting and a fresh paint job by the women of the Marien Verein put on the finishing touches. The basement now had a whole new look.
Also in 1948, Fr. Robert Kruetz, an artist from Assumption Abbey, carefully repainting the altars and statues, plus polishing and replating altar utensils. The rectory also received some improvements, including new insulation to help hold down heating costs.
Fr. Thomas Jundt, O.S.B. continued as pastor in 1948. During his pastorate, the new addition of St. Benedict's High School was completed in 1949. Fr. Fettig continued as his assistant. When Fr. Jundt left in 1952, Fr. Fettig was appointed as pastor, while Fr. Roman Schmidt, O.S.B. was sent as the new assistant.
Since the roof had been repaired in 1948, it was now safe to do some major work on the interior of the church without worrying about the plaster being damaged because of leaks. In 1953 this significant re-decorating was begun in earnest, headed up by Fr. Matthew. The pews and kneelers were removed to make room for the painting scaffolds. And as it had long been felt that the church was too dark and somber-looking, a lighter color scheme was selected for the walls and ceiling, and some additional paintings were added. The view from the scaffolding revealed that the windows were also in serous need of repair. With the pews out, it was an excellent opportunity to do this work too, so approval was given. Also, the communion railing was repaired, and the sanctuary floor was tiled. These improvements cost in excess of $8,100.00. Although some parishioners did not continue the tradition of their forefathers' generous giving, most did, as $6,700.00 was raised. In turn, what had been one of the most beautiful churches in the state was now even lovelier.
Frs. Matthew and Roman were not able to enjoy the new look for long, however. They were both called to other duties in 1954. And although the parishioners tried to keep at least one of them, it was not to be. The Benedictine, Fr. Michael Messer, became the new pastor and remained for about six years. During his pastorate, he had several assistants. Fr. Claude Seeberger, O.S.B., 1954-55; Fr. Stephen Kranz, O.S.B., 1955-56; Fr. Anselm Ruelle, O.S.B., 1956-57; and Fr. Bartholomew Stovik, O.S.B., each served usually a year.
Vatican II, The 1960's To The Present
In 1960 some changes were inevitable. Fr. Michael moved on to a new assignment and was replaced by Fr. Mark Renner, O.S.B. He was joined in 1961 by Fr. Stephen Kranz who had been an assistant here a few years earlier under Fr. Michael. The "Special Public School" status at Strasburg came to an end with the school year of 1960-61. The parish had decided, while Fr. Michael was still here, to return to the status of things as they'd been before the two school systems, public and parochial, were joined in cooperative partnership in 1931. This made necessary the construction of a new school facility adjacent to the old gymnasium by the Strasburg School District. The parish in turn had to build a gymnasium for St. Benedict's High School and grade school children, since the old gymnasium was owned by the Public School District. Much of the labor, money, and machinery needed for this construction was donated by parishioners.
The community now had two thriving school systems. And with a strong economy and plenty of children to educate, even a small community like Strasburg can support two systems, although there had to be sacrifices. Not everyone wanted to see the two school systems split. But people in positions of power at the time felt this decision would be best. In retrospect, the old symbiotic relationship between the parish, and the Public School District worked to everyone's advantage, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. In its place the community eventually had two expensive systems that were increasingly competing for limited funds and students, in a period of economic decline and dwindling enrollment. This produced deep and bitter conflicts within the community, not so much among the students, but between the parents and other adults. No specific examples of the animosity need be given here. Those who have lived through these difficulties know full well how ugly such tension was at times. It's a credit to the people of Strasburg that as a community has adjusted to the realities of changed circumstances, more individuals have found it in their hearts to forgive each other, bury their grudges, and work together toward a better community for everybodys future.
Meanwhile, in 1966, Fr. Peter Goeser, O.S.B. became assistant pastor. Then in 1967, Fr. Roman Schmidt returned to Strasburg, now as pastor, replacing Fr. Mark. For a few months Fr. Peter stayed on as assistant pastor. Later in 1967, he received a fresh assignment.
As it has ever been before, the parishioners continued to have a great love for and pride in their church. When something needed doing, there were always those who came forward with their time, talents, and financial support to complete the challenge. Fr. Roman was perhaps the greatest example in always willing and eager to direct his efforts into whatever work needed to be done.
St. Mary's Society raised the necessary funds to tile the church basement floor and carpet the stairway in 1970. Labor was provided by the Knights of Columbus. By this time, the pioneer building which had been built as the first church in 1893, moved to town in 1906, and converted to a convent for the Ursulines in 1912, was seeing its last days of useful service. In 1972, the parish bought the Mary Lauinger home across the street from the rectory. With some creativity and hard work this well©kept old home was converted to a rectory for Fr. Roman who then had the sisters move into the larger, old rectory next to the church. Several years later, the pioneer church/convent building was sold and dismantled.
In 1966, St. Benedict's High School was consolidated with Linton's St. Anthony's High School. The new school occupied the St. Benedict's campus in Strasburg and was called Emmons Central High School, being used and subsidized by the seven Catholic parishes of Emmons County.
By the late 1970's, the regional economy in general, and the agricultural economy particularly had gone into a slump. As financial burdens became heavier on individual families, more and more of the students at Emmons Central were from Strasburg, and less and less from other parishes. Lower birthrates in the mid to late sixties and beyond were now showing up as lower student enrollments in the schools. This lower enrollment made all schools less efficient. The problem was more acute especially for the parochial school, because its existence depended upon free-will support of church and parishioners, with minimal help from the federal, state, or local governments. Eventually, the monetary burden became infeasible to continue carry, thus with the graduation of the senior class in 1985, Emmons Central closed its doors as the only private high school in the county during the previous 19 years.
In the fall of 1984, Fr. Roman ended his long term of pastral service to the people of SS. Peter and Paul Parish; He retired to the Abbey at Richardton. He had worked tirelessly for this parish and was conscientious to steer a clear course through calm, as well as turbulent, waters during his pastorate. Not only had the Church undergone dramatic change and growth in the wake of Vatican II, but the parish also had to face difficult local issues during those years. Fr. Roman, himself a German-Russian, understood the ethnic temperament of his people and pastored them accordingly.
In some respects, the parish at Strasburg had not kept pace with organizational changes of the Church bishops as liturgy, structure, and current church thinking. When Fr. Jerome Kautzman was sent to Strasburg as Fr. Roman's successor in 1984, one of his tasks was to introduce and explain various changes that Rome and the American Bishops had initiated. One such change was the switch to a conciliar form of parish government to replace the traditional trustee system. This had been mandated for many years by the Church, but not yet implemented at Strasburg. The involvement of lay people in the liturgy was also expanded, as had been encouraged by Rome. Physically, the communion rails were relocated so that the altar was open to the congregants of the church, in keeping with Vatican II guidelines. In 1984, the rectory was also moved back to its original location, while the sisters moved into the former Mary Lauinger home.
When Fr. Jerry came to Strasburg, he invited a friend of his, Dominic Pereira, to help with parish duties here. Dominic, a lively and robust character of Portuguese background, had been running a dining facility to feed the poor and homeless in Northern California. But he accepted the invitation and came to North Dakota. His gregarious and jovial nature endeared him to many parishioners from the start. And his cooking talents were put to good use for a number of benefit occasions in the community.
Whoever said that "you can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can't please all the people all the time", really understood human nature. Because it seems that regardless of who's in leadership position, or is responsible for making decisions, or taking on a task, there's always someone with a different viewpoint or idea about how things should be done. And parish communities are no different. But this is a good thing. Groups and communities need the balance created by differing points of view to avoid becoming unbalanced or "overboard" in any one direction.
Naturally then, when Fr. Jerry made efforts to change some things that he honestly felt needed changing, some people thought, "Great! It's about time." And others thought "This is terrible! He's gone too far." Well, one thing's certain. Nothing ever stays the same on this earth. It never has, and it never will. Change, be it monumental or subtle, is as much a part of life as the law of gravity. Nevertheless, it is often traumatic. When asking people to change, it's crucial to take into account their sensitivities, their concerns, and the pace at which they're able to accept the changes. And there's the difficulty. Everyone's different! There were opinionated differences in those last few years. Rumors were flying. The real issues seemed to center around differences of opinion over possible changes to the interior of the church. Some wanted to move fast, others wanted to proceed slowly, or not at all. People, from all points on the spectrum of opinion had deeply felt convictions. A few, unfortunately, let their emotions carry them away to the point of uncharitable behavior.
This controversy was similar in serious impact to the one over whether or not the church should have been moved into town in 1906. That such disputes take place within a Christian Community is always regrettable. But we are all human beings who fall repeatedly on the road to perfection. It will always be thus. Hopefully we gain a bit of wisdom and understanding with each recovery.
In 1987, Fr. Jerry made the difficult decision to leave Strasburg. He recognized that the best interest of the parish would be served, when the controversies could remain in the past. And he knew that this would best be accomplished under a new pastor. Many in the parish viewed this decision of wisdom with sadness. Fr. Jerry's excellent sermons and his gift for extemporaneous prayer were an asset to the parish.
The Parish Today
But SS. Peter and Paul received an excellent new pastor in the person of Fr. Leonard Eckroth. His kind and gentle ways have done much to calm the storm and heal the wounds of the past in the parish. He is just the right man to direct and spearhead maintenance work that the parishioners have been eager to accomplish to ready the church in top shape for the centennial celebrations of the State of North Dakota and of the Parish community of SS. Peter and Paul, which started with a small group of brave pioneers back in 1889. Also Fr. Leonard is truly a good shepherd for the parish of today.
As we review accomplishments in the parish at the approach to our centennial, we find much to be thankful. Despite these times when there is a critical shortage of priests in our country, even though ours is a small parish, we have a very good resident pastor. There are two sisters teaching at St. Benedicts School which has remained open these many years because of the generosity of many, and in spite of the financial obstacles. Catholic education has always been important in this community. Should the future become impossible to maintain a parochial school, the commitment to solid instruction in the Catholic Christian faith will remain in the C.C.D. Program. Through deep sacrifices of past generations Strasburg today enjoys one of the finest, and more attractive, churches in the Midwest. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as was the Rectory during Fr. Kautzman's pastorate. SS. Peter and Paul Parish church is probably one of the most beautiful and inspiring small parish churches even in the entire country. An outstanding example of the depth of Christian commitment in a German-Russian community, these lively paintings, statues, and ornate architecture capture a dimension of spirituality that is not to be found visually in most of today's modern churches. There's a sense of solidness and permanence in the Catholic Christian Faith, as examplified in the church of SS. Peter and Paul at Strasburg. They give true meaning to the gospel words of Jesus that adorn the arch above the sanctuary in Latin; "Tu es Petrus et super hanc Petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam." "You are Rock (Peter), and upon this Rock I will build my Church."
A Note to the Reader
As 1989 marks the 100th anniversary of arrival of the first permanent European settlers to what became Strasburg, North Dakota. It is also the 100th birthday of statehood for North Dakota. This history was written to provide the interested reader with some background and facts about the history of the people and parish of SS. Peter and Paul. Every effort has been made to be correct and accurate. However, be forgiving as you read, because mistakes will surely appear despite the best intentions of authors, editors, and printers. For these we sincerely apologize.
Some source materials for this history are the jubilee books from Strasburg for the years 1914, 1948, and 1976,Moments to Remember by Michael M. Miller - 1976, and Paradise On The Steppe and Memories Of The Black Sea Germans, both by Dr. Joseph S. Height. These last two books are available through the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, 1008 E. Central Ave., Bismarck, N.D. 58501
Jerry Klein is the son of Gerald and Florence (Schwab) Klein, both natives of Strasburg. His ancestors and relatives have been intimately involved in the growth and development of SS. Peter and Paul for four generations. He has made the German©Russian culture and people a personal topic of study; He received the Joseph S. Height Memorial Literary Award in 1987 for his paper German-Russian Dance Music In Transition: Strasburg, North Dakota.
For additional information on the Germans from Russia culture and history, review the website of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599 - http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc