Plains Folk

North Trinity Reunion


Beneath the spreading branches of boxelders, gentle talk hung in the air like perfume. The peonies in the nearby cemetery were budding, not yet in bloom. Some people nursed the remnants on their plates from the potluck, while others strolled among the gravestones, conversing with departed relatives. Now and then someone looked up at the steeple, carefully restored atop the white-frame church, although there have been no regular services in the church for more than half a century.

One Sunday every June, the memory group of North Trinity Lutheran Church, in Walsh County, southwest of Nash, gathers for a service of remembrance and a potluck reunion. The activities on this day are familiar ones for our part of the country-people renew the ties of a once vital, now reminiscent community, and they share a meal. This is, however, an unusual memory group.

These are the people with whom we visited on Christmas Eve 2006 in order to partake of a wonderful tradition. At dusk every Christmas Eve, the people gather at the church to ring the old bell, taking turns rhythmically drawing the rope. As it peals, people with call sheets sit in their cars, methodically cellphoning friends and family across the country, holding the phones out their car windows in order to share the joyous sound of the bells across the country, even across oceans.

Young Gavin Johnson that evening told us how the previous year, when he was on duty in Iraq, he rejoiced to hear the bells of home courtesy of the cellphone of his grandfather, Kenny Johnson.

Thanks to Shelley McCann, who invited us out for the picnic this year. The only unwelcome guests here are the gnats of June. What a contrast in the landscape from that of December! The cemetery is kept neat, but all around it the growth is lush. Back of the church, the Middle Park River runs high, but well within its banks.

The service is joyous, but subdued, because these folk are mostly Swedes, after all. Hymns are traditional-“Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Beautiful Savior,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” The service closes with table grace, after which the people, instead of exiting the way they came in, file into the old kitchen back of the altar, where the potluck buffet is arranged. Shelley has brought doughnuts, which we gather are some sort of tradition she is obliged to carry on forever, like the open-faced chipped beef sandwiches another lady has brought. Exiting from the back of the church, the people take places to eat in the grove of boxelders and crabs on the south side of the building.

Kenny and the other oldtimers recall the picnic used to be closer to the river, in a cow pasture. They tell the favorite story of how every year someone bought a bunch of bananas and hung it in a tree. For a nickel, a kid was allowed to reach up and cut one. I love the idea of a bunch of bananas hanging from a boxelder in North Dakota.

The people of North Trinity received a grant from Preservation North Dakota to restore their steeple in 2006. They raised most of the money themselves, though. As for the care and maintenance of the memory community, well, they’re handling that quite nicely themselves, thank you.

See video of the North Trinity reunion picnic –

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