Plains Folk

Landscape of Faith


When people drive through the Red River Valley, they don’t see much. It is not a landscape that keeps travelers’ noses pressed against the windows. Well now, what I just said isn’t exactly true. People look, but not intently, because they think they can see what is there with only a cursory glance, and after that it’s just more of the same.

Those of us rooted in the landscape and conversant in its history have, I would argue, the same drive-by mentality. We have it figured out: this is a landscape of industrial agriculture. We know this from our historians, from Hi Drache’s book on bonanza farming and others. We know it from the section-range-township perfection of patterns on the land, right down to the perfect linear rows of beets and beans. An ordered landscape, the patterns of which are economic.

But then I spent some time studying a collection of my own photographs of the Red River Valley, from Pembina to Fairmount, and on closer look, another pattern emerged: the look of a landscape of faith.

That closer look, for instance, takes me through the doors and down the aisle of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church to contemplate the Mucha of Pisek. The Bohemian and Moravian founders of this parish in Pisek, North Dakota, insisted that the faith of their fathers be transplanted into the new land, and they were willing to pay for it. Reportedly they sent some $1000, a princely sum in the 1890s, to their Moravian kinsman in Paris, Alphonse Mucha, for a painting depicting the two founders of the faith in Moravia, Sts. Cyril and Methodius.

Alphonse Mucha is known internationally as the founder of the school of decorative arts known as Art Nouveau. He himself considered his other line of work, the painting of epic scenes from Slavic history and culture, more important, and a finger of that line, the Mucha of Pisek, reaches into the Red River Valley. The Mucha is, I would argue, the most significant single work of visual art in North Dakota. And you can view it on any day in the church in Pisek.

At the south end of the valley, in Fairmount, Father G. C. Bierens was concerned not with the planting of the pioneer faith but with its preservation in the modern times of the 1930s. Many Americans of those days were concerned about the supposed conflict between science and faith, but Father Bierens, who was also a bird bander for the biological survey, believed there was no such conflict, but rather that faith, properly construed, could accommodate or even subsume science.

The material evidence of Father Bierens’ belief is the Sermon in Stone, a pair of striking obelisks standing alongside St. Anthony’s Church. Embedded in them are all sorts of geological, paleontological, and archeological artifacts, along with religious symbols–crosses, keys, the Ten Commandments, the Alpha and the Omega. The Sermon in Stone stands to declare the landscape of faith to subsequent generations.

When I speak of the landscape of faith, though, I think most of all of Warsaw, North Dakota. If you’re thinking I refer to the magnificent St. Stanislaus Church of Warsaw, you are only partly right. I am thinking of the way that the Polish settlers of Warsaw extended the landscape of faith into the countryside.

Across a township or more territory around Warsaw are situated seven crosses erected at country crossroads. Polish farmers emplaced them in the pioneer landscape in emulation of the old country custom of wayside crosses. Farmers coming to town would pause at a cross to offer prayers. Families have maintained these wayside crosses over four generations and right down to present day.

For those who look and reflect, even the driver of a quarter-million-dollar combine down one of these country roads, the wayside crosses of Warsaw still await prayers in the landscape of faith.

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