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Faith on the prairie: Remote congregations hold on to century-old traditions

Perhaps the last remaining markers of those who originally settled North Dakota are the churches that they built and left behind. Here and there, they dot the vast plains. Some still function while others sit empty. Each church has its own unique...

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The sign outside the Zion Lutheran Church north of Regent is shown on June 28. It says, in German, “Ehre sei Gott in der Hohe,” or “Glory to God in the Highest.” (Press Photo by Dustin Monke)

Perhaps the last remaining markers of those who originally settled North Dakota are the churches that they built and left behind.
Here and there, they dot the vast plains. Some still function while others sit empty. Each church has its own unique history, and a distinct ethnic stock behind it.
Those that still hold services seem to tell a story of resilience in the face of time. However, many service fractions of the congregations they once held, which speaks to the agricultural and social changes that have swept through the region.
‘Are we going to have another year?’
With an average congregation of only 12 members, Zion Lutheran Church is the last functioning rural church in Hettinger County.
Zion Lutheran worship services were founded in 1908 by German immigrants, and the church itself was built in 1913. It sits about 12 miles north of Regent and a couple miles west of the Enchanted Highway. It’s serviced by Rev. Bruce Peterson, who also officiates at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in New England.
If it wasn’t for Zion, church chairman Keith Witte said he probably wouldn’t see his closest neighbors for months. However, he gets to see them each week. In his words, it’s the “glue” that holds the community together.
“It’s kind of a close-knit, family church,” Witte said.
His father, Louis Witte, also still attends.
They said the oldest member is 97 and has attended the church all his life. The youngest is now a freshman at Dickinson State University. Keith said everyone originates from within a four-mile radius of the church.
All of the members have been going to Zion Lutheran their entire lives, they said. They are also all descendants of the founding members of the church. Their surnames are found in the adjoining cemetery, as well as in historical pamphlets that commemorate major anniversaries of the church.
“It’s kind of a family history almost,” Louis said.
Keith remembers his childhood when he said there were around 28 attendees each Sunday. He and Louis said there are even historic photographs that show much larger congregations.
Of course, the numbers have diminished since then.
“It’s just a sign of the times,” Louis said.
Keith added that there are less farming families in the area than there were in the past, and those that are still there have smaller families.
“We’re to the point in numbers where, every year we continue to ask ourselves, ‘Are we going another year?’” Keith said.
No church comes free. Keith and Louis said there always needs to be repairs, electrical work and other jobs to keep the church up. Pastoral services also require funding. All of that money is donated from the pockets of members, or else left in the wills of those that pass away.
“These are issues we’ve always faced,” Louis said.
In terms of sustaining members, he said the question is if anyone will fill the vacant farmsteads in the area, and whether they will feel welcome to attend, if they wish to at all.
Keith said the longevity of the church mainly depended on how long it would have pastoral services. With pastors retiring and not enough coming to the area to take their places, those with small congregations are especially vulnerable to being left out by pastors that already cover multiple churches.
“It makes more sense for them to go fill a few larger congregations than it will ever be to fill 12 people here,” he said. “That’s where we will struggle.”
Peterson, who commutes each Sunday from New England, said he was only officiating at Our Redeemer’s before the position at Zion opened up. He said he found it feasible - both monetarily and with the 8 a.m. service time - to preside there,as well as return for the 9:30 service at Our Redeemer’s.
“They were able to still afford me on their own,” Peterson said.
Still, it is a constant question of how much longer the church will function.
“We really keep trying to find ways to keep it open,” Keith said.
A congregation of 3
Founded in 1907, Daglum Lutheran Church has gone through three buildings in its history. The first two, both white with a steeple, were struck by lightning and burned down.
The current church about 16 miles south of South Heart was constructed in 1960, is brown, steeple-less and sits within a barrier of evergreens. Simple, white crosses are affixed to the building’s north and south sides.
Rev. Roger Dieterle officiates service at the Daglum church every other Sunday, which he said was decided 18 years ago when membership was going down. He also holds services for Belfield Lutheran Parish and Union Congregational Church in Medora.
Dieterle said there were between 15 and 20 people who regularly attended services on Sunday when he came to the church in 2000. Now, that number has dwindled down to three.
He attributes this to many of the church’s congregation dying off, which was mostly made up of local farmers.
“One of their main leaders was killed in a drunk-driving accident in the last five years, which really hurt,” Dieterle said.
He described the woman, named Bobbie, as a “matriarch of the church.” When she died, he said it really affected what was left of the community.
Another regular member recently moved away, Dieterle said, leaving just the three. One of them commutes all the way from South Heart, while the other two are a couple that live nearby.
On occasion, Dieterle said a fourth or a fifth member will show up for service.
He described the service as rather informal, everyone sitting in the Fellowship Hall, rather than the sanctuary.
Another unique feature of Daglum Lutheran Church is that Dieterle and the attendants have a communal lunch as part of the service, where everyone brings something to eat. Since the service is scheduled around noon in such a remote area, Dieterle figured it was something from which he and the attendants would both benefit.
“People generally appreciate it,” he said.
Dieterle said the church is one of the last remaining emblems of Daglum, a settlement that once was centered a few miles north of the church. He said the charter members were Norwegian Lutherans, somewhat of a minority compared to the German and Ukrainian Catholics in the region.
“Some of the last children of the charter members have died within the last 15 years,” he said, adding that those still affiliated with the church are the descendants of those charter members.
On how much longer he foresaw the church remaining in service, Dieterle replied, “That’s something you would have to ask the members.”
Uniquely Ukrainian
St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church sits 16 miles north of Belfield on Highway 85. Founded in 1906 by Ukrainian immigrants in the area, it’s a simple white church that sits nestled behind some evergreen trees off of the road.M
Rev. Taras Miles holds services at the church, as well as St. John’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Belfield. He described both of their congregations as “very small.”
“The first church that was established was St. Demetrius,” Miles said. “But it wasn’t in that location.”
Some miles west of where the highway now stretches, Miles described a small ethnic settlement called Ukrainia, where the church was situated. Things changed, however, when the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration created the highway in the 1930s and formed a major link to the region that people began to flock toward.
As a result, St. Demetrius was physically moved to where it is today.
Miles said there are about 30 families that currently go to St. Demetrius, although the number of parishioners has steadily decreased over time.
“Both parishes are diminishing,” he said, adding that most of those who attend are elderly people.
Miles attributes the decline in attendance to the shifts in agriculture.
The days where many hands were needed to keep a farm operating are gone, he said. Mechanical advancements have replaced human power, and so fewer people now live in the community, which reflects in church attendance. Families also don’t have as many children as they once did.
Miles also said many individuals who are raised in the area leave for better opportunities elsewhere. Many go off to college, returning only occasionally to attend services.
“There’s no money in agriculture,” he said.

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