Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Jasinski, Father Andrew. The Centennial of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, Zeeland, North Dakota, and the Spiritual Heritage of St. John’s Catholic Church, Rural McIntosh County, North Dakota. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2005.
When I opened this book and paged past the Table of Contents, I was greeted by a full-color portrait of Pope Benedict XVI and an inscription announcing his Apostolic Blessing on the priest and parishioners of St. Andrews Parish, Zeeland, ND, on the occasion of their 100th Anniversary. I knew then that this was no ordinary church history.
The story of how the Catholic Church was established in the North Dakota counties of Emmons, Logan, and McIntosh is bound with the story of the pioneers who first came to this area from South Russia beginning in 1884. During the years that followed, large numbers of people of this faith took up homestead land. Priests originally assigned as missionaries to serve Indian people in the Fort Yates area traveled the long distance to serve them. Life was difficult for the people trying to establish farms, and one wonders how they stuck it out. Fires swept the prairie, droughts limited the harvests in some years, and diseases multiplied the graves.
For worship, the people met at first in their homes, then built a church they called St. John’s. It was a box of a building with a cross on top, but the cover picture shows that several hundred people put on their Sunday best clothes and gathered for its blessing on May 12, 1889.
The church in the area grew. The authors who put put the book together weave the official aspects of the church, which were sometimes uncomfortable to process, with the personal and spiritual, which gave them strong support. There is material about worship itself as well as about the buildings and people. The pattern of dioceses changed to accommodate the increasing numbers, and new churches were built in the counties so people had a church nearby. Their own priests were welcomed by them.
Then priests and nuns who came from within the German Russian community enter the picture, and the ministry of the group extends to the establishment of St. Alexius Hospital in Bismarck. The book records anniversaries, celebrations, and changes such as new popes and the Vatican II Council, which affected the life of these rural churches in distant North Dakota.
A chapter titled "Fruit," which incorporates personal statements and interviews, gives a picture of a vibrant spiritual and social life in this parish. A school was built in 1929 near the original St. John’s, and in it were "catechism lessons and German classes, but also meetings, dances, name’s day parties, and other functions." A horse barn sheltered the teams while people attended events. Lives were marked by First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Feast Days, and other church events. One woman remembers, "Being at St. John's was like one big family."
As time went on, changes in the larger community touched these counties. English replaced German, and motorized transportation took people places other than church. Things became more organized. A beautiful new church was built by Maranatha Custom Churches of Jamestown, which would have been a Protestant organization, and everyone worked together.
This is a very thoughtfully put together book. The author has provided readers with excellent indexing, so if anyone with roots in this parish wants to know the names of priests or nuns who served or if their family is mentioned, this information is easy to find. A generous section of color pictures at the end of the book shows a still-lively church community, though reduced in numbers as is all of rural North Dakota. In one, a priest leads a discussion of life in former times. I thought of the musicals Brigadoon and Camelot, in which there is "one brief, shining, moment" that no longer exists, but which leaves wonderful memories. Church communities like St. John’s and St. Andrew's may not be exactly as they once were, but all of us who were once part of one know that their work and spirit continue in many ways in those they sent forth.