Places of Faith
Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time and gas prowling the countryside in pursuit of the culture of the plains at the grassroots. Much of this effort has been a search for heritage features that would render the prairie landscape attractive to independent travelers, and there are plenty such features, which are valuable in a direct way.
As with all applied research, however, if you do enough of it, then larger, basic knowledge eventuates, also. Here is an underlying theme that emerges from the welter of material culture on the land: Our forebears were spiritually devout, with a pervasive piety that is difficult to imagine in the 21st Century.
The inordinate number of country churches in North Dakota is an obvious piece of evidence of which most people today are aware. If we think of these churches as having merely a Sunday-morning, gather-to-worship role, then we miss the point. Country people of European immigrant stock made the church their center not only for the vital functions of life—worship, childhood, coming of age, marriage, death—but also for the pleasant diversions of life. Parishes had baseball teams and brass bands. They dispensed food and drink and companionship.
Country folk went to town for trade, but that was like going into a foreign land. They came home to the countryside, where they felt solace in their faith.
They also, even as they put plows into the earth to transform the land according to their conceptions of productivity, simultaneously sought to render the landscape sacred according to their standards of piety. The number and extent of shrines and other material expressions of faith situated in the countryside is astonishing.
I am thinking, for instance, of the wayside crosses of Warsaw. In the countryside roundabout this Polish immigrant community are emplaced seven roadside crosses, whereat a pious farmer, en route to town to sell his grain, might pause and make petitions, perhaps for a fair deal when he got to the grain elevator in town. These crosses remain, or if necessary have been replaced, under continuing care by descendants of the immigrant farmers who established them.
I think, too, of the great groves and little chapels that surround St. Mary’s Church of Dazey, installations on the grounds that make a place for the Festival of Corpus Christi. The processions of Corpus Christi need places, physical emplacements on the land, as bases to touch.
It is sad when these material expressions of piety are neglected or destroyed. I wonder who in New England today remembers the elaborate shrines around which their ancestors, from their St. Mary’s, celebrated Rogation Days. Does anyone even remember what Rogation Days are anymore, or are we already too deeply divorced from a land-based faith to understand what they once meant?
Of all the cultural landscapes of the northern plains, that of German-Russian Country may be the greatest example of a landscape rendered sacred through works. Just a few years ago, on their ranch near Braddock, Pete and Mary Ellen Naaden erected the Cross on the Prairie, a compelling crucifix fashioned by the metal artist Tom Neary. The Cross on the Prairie appears in a landscape already spangled with the Pray for Peace Shrine, the neon hilltop cross at Zeeland, the Prairie Bells and Grotto of the Holy Family, and who knows what other fervently material expression that might stand on a hillside somewhere.
All such installations on the land are intended to make us think. The aggregation of them makes me think all the more, of a mentality among a people, of a spirit moving on the face of the land, that is strange today even to those of us who are its linear descendants. Except now and then I feel it still, don’t you?