Many of the Catholic churches in North Dakota and South Dakota bespeak the legacy of Catholic German immigrants who worked hard and worshipped even harder.
Four of them in particular are notable because they tower above small prairie towns, too large for their shrinking communities, but too magnificent not to maintain.
The early settlers in the Dakota Territory erected beautiful churches similar to the ones they had left behind in Europe. They wanted places of worship to glorify God and to last for generations.
In the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, are: St. Mary’s in Richardton, Sts. Peter and Paul in Strasburg and St. Mary’s in Hague. Their total populations are 548; 392; and 67 respectively, according to the 2014 census poll. Hoven, South Dakota, home to St. Anthony of Padua, has 407 residents.
The churches are relics of the pre-Vatican II era, where people worshipped alongside a multitude of angels and saints captured in stained-glass windows, statues and paintings. Although they still function as active parishes, the churches have also become tourist destinations. Motorists detour off highways, and busloads of pilgrims come to see this Old World beauty surviving in the New World.
Their operation and maintenance costs are not practical, but the Catholic Church is about faith, beauty, courage and sacrifice.
Germans Settle the Dakotas
In their book Magnificent Churches on the Prairie: A Story of Immigrant Priests, Builders & Homesteaders, authors James Coomber and Sheldon Green explain, “At the turn of the [20th] century, Benedictine missionaries and homesteading immigrants still living in earthen dwellings collaborated to build awe-inspiring churches of stone and stained glass.” According to them, during the late 19th century, immigrants from Germany and the Ukraine flooded into the Dakotas for free farmland offered from the government via homesteading. Many of the Germans had immigrated first to Russia, but in 1871, when they were forced to speak Russian and serve in the military there, they looked far west to the Dakota Territory.
The Homestead Act offered 160 acres to individuals willing to live on it. (North and South Dakota became states in 1889.)
One of the first things the homesteaders did, according to Green and Coomber, was build breathtaking places of worship to glorify God, despite money being scarce for the newcomers. Priests and parishioners pitched in, digging basements, and skilled craftsmen supervised volunteer laborers from the parish.
In some ways, the situation has come full circle. Many of the parishioners in these parishes today, like their ancestors, volunteer their services and labor to keep their churches running. But the cost of maintaining them is at times too much for parishes to shoulder alone.
Outside Help Needed
In Hoven, St. Anthony of Padua’s twin 140-foot spires are seen for miles around. The church is affectionately called the “Cathedral of the Prairie,” although it’s not a true cathedral. It was completed in 1922 at a cost of about $500,000 and seats 1,000 churchgoers. (Recall that Hoven’s entire population is only 407.)
According to the pastor, Father Kevin Doyle, the church is now valued in the millions. The 31 Bavarian stained-glass windows were $8,300 at the time, but experts deem them to be priceless today.
Since the parish has only around 200 registered families, and many of those are widows and widowers, Father Doyle said it has taken creativity to maintain the church.
“The church underwent major restorations beginning in the 1970s and ’80s,” he said. “An order of brothers specializing in restoration came and trained volunteers from inside and outside of the parish to do the work.” All told, 20,000 hours were donated to repaint the interior, including hundreds of ornately stenciled designs and gold leafing.
Father Doyle explained that an additional $50,000 above the usual $200,000 in parish donations is needed to keep the church operating. Donations from tourists and friends of the church help, and an annual “Christmas on the Prairie” concert raises $30,000-$35,000 every year. People attend the sellout symphony and choir concert from all over by the busload.
St. Anthony’s is meeting its budget for now, but the future is uncertain. “The average age of our parishioners is 55,” Father Doyle said. “So there may be only 15 families left in the next generation.” He asks his parishioners to consider the church as one of their children when writing their wills. And now that Hoven has fiber-optic lines, making modern communication possible, Father Doyle encourages people to get out of the big cities and come to peaceful Hoven. He is also working on live-streaming baptisms, weddings and other events for out-of-town friends and relatives. “This can be a way to keep the church alive,” he said. “There will be a ‘donate’ tab on the screen” of the church’s website.
In Richardton, there is a Benedictine abbey next to St. Mary’s Church, which is shared by the parish and the monks. Vincent Wehrl, born in Switzerland in 1855, became a missionary in the Dakota Territory in 1888, ending up in the village of Richardton. He established the monastery, and in 1909, the Bavarian Romanesque-styled church was completed at a cost of $150,000. It is in the shape of a cross, with two 100-foot-high steeples. Stained-glass windows depict various saints, and a large rose window portrays the Epiphany of Jesus.
In 2000-2001, St. Mary’s underwent a total renovation. Father Thomas Wordekemper headed up the renovation and was just appointed pastor this past January. “It cost $3.1 million,” he explained. “Donations came in from all 50 states.” Given the exorbitant expense, a professional fundraiser was brought in. Otherwise, the parish, by sharing church expenses with the abbey, is able to cover the annual $185,000 operating budget.
“It’s a privilege for us to care for this great inheritance from our ancestors,” Father Wordekemper said, “but it’s expensive.”
Sts. Peter and Paul in Strasburg and St. Mary’s in Hague are only a dozen miles apart from one another. Careful budgeting, shared services and lots of volunteers save money on maintaining the soaring Romanesque churches. They even share one pastor, who also has a third church, St. Michael’s in Linton. Father Jason Signalness had only been a priest for one year before receiving that assignment in 2012.
In Hague, the first St. Mary’s, built in 1906, was destroyed by fire on Ash Wednesday in 1929. Despite difficult economic times, the parishioners immediately began building an even bigger, more ornate church.
Father Signalness explained in an interview with the Register that a leaky roof is threatening the beauty and integrity of the historic structure. “When an urgent need arises in these small parishes, the people generally know they have to step up, at least financially,” he said.
“But replacing the roof is more than the parishioners [74 families] could afford.”
So Father Signalness turned to crowdfunding. Bismarck Bishop David Kagan agreed, giving him permission to start a “Go Fund Me” page, which he titled “Fixing Mary’s Roof.”
“The insurance company has paid claims from storms, but we’ve reached our limit, so they will not pay any more,” he explained.
Damage has not been small. In 2012, there were leaks that resulted in water damage to light fixtures and paintings. Since then, constant patchwork has provided only temporary fixes.
“St. Mary’s is a piece of history,” Father Signalness said. “Walking into the church, [the faithful can see] everything fits together so well. There’s purpose to it.” He explained that looking around the interior is a lesson in theology, through all of the images of saints and Bible scenes.
Thus far, a little more than half of the needed funds have been raised. “Spending money to preserve St. Mary’s is for a higher purpose,” he said. “I have faith that if this church could be built in the trying times of the Depression, it can be re-roofed today.”
All three pastors of these churches on the prairie say caring for them is a sacred trust.
Father Doyle summed it up: “Stories of our religious history and faith lift us above the ordinariness of the congregation into a world of saints and angels and are glimpses at heaven. We are reminded of those who have gone before us and are still mystically with us today, in a way a white-washed wall cannot do.”
When the homesteaders put what little money they had into their churches, Father Doyle said it was a message that has reverberated through the years.
“They put their meager earnings into something to give glory to God that would last — their churches.”
Patti Armstrong writes
from North Dakota.