'A piece of our history gone': Burned church remembered for tragic history after Garrison Dam flooding

The Memorial Congregational Church 10 miles northwest of White Shield, N.D., burned down April 22, 2019. It was once located in the Missouri River bottoms before the flood of Lake Sakakawea behind the Garrison Dam. Submitted photo

WHITE SHIELD, N.D. — When Ed Hall learned that the Memorial Congregational Church on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation burned down last week, it opened up an old wound.

The 85-year-old Parshall resident grew up attending Memorial Congregational Church. As he recalls, "it was the mother of all the churches."

The church, which was built in 1926, was originally located in Elbowoods, a town flooded in 1954 due to the construction of the Garrison Dam. Many tribal members, including Hall and his family, were displaced because of the flood.

Memorial Congregational Church and its cemetery were then relocated to a prairie about 10 miles northwest of White Shield in McLean County in central North Dakota. After the flooding, people moved to other towns nearby and the church slowly closed its doors.

Despite the church being vacant, it still stood as a symbol of survival for many tribal members.


When the church was destroyed by fire April 22, Hall said the memories of him and his family giving up their home, land "everything we had" all came back to him.

"It's just a reminder of the trauma that we went through," he said.

It's unclear what caused the church to burn down. Tribal law enforcement declined to answer questions about the fire.

Chairman Mark Fox said in a statement that the loss of the church is "devastating for our people."

"Our nation mourns with all those who held a special place in their hearts for this sacred place," Fox said.

Hall, a member of the Memorial Congregational Church's board of directors, said there were plans to restore the church, because of its historical significance and the number of important people who were buried there.

Marilyn Hudson, 82, who also is a Parshall resident, said the church was "iconic," and active in the Elbowoods community. Despite failed efforts in the past to restore the church, she said community members were recently trying to secure funding to rehab it and maintain it for years to come.

Prairie Rose Seminole has family members buried in the cemetery. News of the church burning was difficult, because of its importance.


"It's just a loss; a piece of our history gone," said Seminole, who lives in Fargo.

Hall has gathered history on the Memorial Congregational Church. It was established by a missionary named Charles Hall (no relation), who came out to the reservation to preach the gospel.

"All the people liked him," Hall said, despite many tribal members already practicing their own religion.

The church had a membership of about 200 people, according to Hall. Because people moved away after the flooding, the church closed down. Instead, the congregation bought another church in Parshall sometime in the 1980s, he said.

On Friday, April 26, Hall said his grandson brought him the plaque from the burned church. He and other members of the church's board of directors are now contemplating what to do next with the church, such as putting up a memorial or continuing with plans to rebuild and restore it.

"We're going to study it and see," Hall said.

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