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Physical, ‘spiritual’ repair for Marmarth church: Denver pastor revives abandoned chapel building

Submitted Photo The Marmarth Bible Church, shown in this undated photo, used to sit abandoned until Rev. Norman Rice of Denver brought it back to life last year.

MARMARTH — For at least 15 years, the Marmarth Bible Church sat abandoned after its pastor unexpectedly left town.

Marmarth fostered an agricultural boom in the early 20th century, established near the transcontinental railroad line. But with a current population of about 142 people, the church’s patrons moved on to Marmarth’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

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That is until a retired Denver pastor came upon the church last June, sightseeing in the Midwest after the death of his wife.

“I saw this little church and it was just vacant, and it just really broke my heart,” Rev. Norman Rice said.

Normally, Rice ,75, would have passed through the town, as he had through Wyoming and Montana. But the mystique of the “ghost town” appealed to him, as well as the chipping paint on the outside of the church.

He asked around and got the numbers of the mayor and a man who mowed the abandoned church’s lawn.

Rice had last been in North Dakota while stationed at Minot Air Force Base in 1957. Given the go-ahead by town leaders, he moved back to the state in September, urged on by work left unfinished.

“There’s a lot of spiritual repair that needs to be accomplished because of the damage that has been done in the community through previous pastors’ behavior,” Rice said.

The Bible Church holds non-denominational Christian services at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

When he held his first service on the first Sunday of October, no one showed up.

Now, only about five to eight attend services on average, but attendance during one weekend last month broke previous records — 13 people showed up.

That’s because one of Rice’s three children came to visit with a grandchild, the pastor laughed. For the first time, the church was filled with music, with his daughter singing and another attendee playing piano.

Mike Criswell, an oilfield safety supervisor from Marmarth, has attended Rice’s services every weekend with his wife since February. He first came to the church after hearing the bells ringing from his house.

“It’s nice to have something like that in town,” Criswell said. “This church doesn’t deter anybody from going, no matter what part of Christianity you subscribe to.”

Rice spends the remainder of his week studying his religion, spending time in the community and repairing the church.

He said community members have devoted time and money to problems like getting utilities up and running. The church has enough space to serve hundreds, with a large room set aside for youth services and a basement with a serviceable kitchen.

Rice said he plans to be buried in Marmarth, and will continue to work past when he officially retired in 2001.

Rice wants to lay the groundwork for the church’s future and get the ball rolling for establishing an active board of directors. The deed for the church is simply made out to the Marmarth Bible Church, so organization for the future is key.

“I don’t have a whole lot of productive years left, but I’ll come in and continue to do the work,” Rice said.