Plains Folk

Christmas in July


A murmur rippled through the pews, and the some of attendees in the packed country church laughed out loud. “It’s a dog,” they were saying, “Where did he come from?”

Unfortunately, I can answer that. It’s our Labrador retriever, Arnie, and he’s deathly afraid of thunderstorms. With black clouds looming, and thunder beginning to roll across the Coteau, he’s escaped confinement in our truck and come looking for Mom – right up the center aisle of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church.

The event crashed by our willful retriever was Christmas in July, a fundraiser for St. Andrew’s, a parish of Germans from Russia in southern McIntosh County. This is one of our prairie churches listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in fact, it’s a twofer—which is to say, it has two church buildings, the 1893 stone-and-clay church as well as the 1906 wood-frame church, both listed.

This past summer the 1906 church got a new roof, thanks partly to a grant from Preservation North Dakota, and the more so to the members and friends of the parish who raised the matching funds. Christmas in July was their brainchild, and we were invited to the event courtesy of Carol Just, a daughter of the parish. It was worth the drive out just to hear the St. Andrew’s Centennial Choir, decked out in red and black, sing the old hymns again in tones innocent of formal training but schooled in prairie experience.

The wood-frame church dates from the time when most of the more impressive churches on the northern plains were constructed. They were the houses built by faith and wheat, for just as various ethnic immigrant farmers were getting well established in the new land, they benefited from a strong agricultural economy in the first decade of the twentieth century. It is fine to see the 1906 church getting the care it deserves.

The 1893 church is more distinctive, however, and perhaps even unique. I know of no other church building of this kind still standing. It was built by ordinary people, German-Russian farmers, using materials at hand and building in the only style they knew, just the way they built their houses, here or in the old country. They hauled stone from a deposit about twelve miles away and laid it up with mortar of clay—no concrete or lime or other additive, just good old gumbo. I don’t know what they plastered it with, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some cow manure was involved. Today the walls are covered with concrete stucco and whitewashed.

The old church could use some repair, mainly in a couple of places where the concrete stucco has pulled loose, and some dripboards need to be replaced. Moreover, some years ago the Vorheisel, or entryway, was removed, and so the area around the front door needs some stabilization, perhaps by restoring the Vorheisel. Otherwise, the old church is in great shape. The parishioners are committed to its restoration and preservation, and so it should be around as a heritage resource for the region for a long time.

It’s quiet sitting inside the old church, the cool interior enwrapped by walls two feet thick, sunlight streaming through the deep window wells. You can look out over the green cemetery and think about the stories of the people lying there. And there’s a yellow dog looking in the window.

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