Tugging the rope on the bell at North Trinity Lutheran Church in Walsh County, N.D., Kenneth Johnson listens reverently as the soul-satisfying tone drifts across the vast prairie.
“Since I was a teenager, I’ve been ringing the bell,” says Johnson, 82. “A lot of memories are attached to this church.”
Johnson’s memories of faith and family are as tightly woven as the fibers of the bell’s old rope. His grandfather was an early member of the church—commonly known as the Swede Church—built by Swedish immigrants in 1893, and he fondly recalls his grandmother and mother cleaning the church windows with vinegar-water each spring and stitching quilts for the church’s annual summer auction.
Although regular Sunday services ended in 1953, Johnson and a half-dozen other volunteers have maintained the white clapboard building for more than half a century. “There’s no worse eyesore than a church falling down,” he says.
Across the nation, historic preservationists and faithful volunteers are rallying to save America’s aging houses of worship. Some churches are being revived for annual get-togethers and religious services, while others are getting a second life as community centers, concert halls, homes and museums.
In Stroudsburg, Pa. (pop. 5,756), volunteers are restoring the 1867 Little Bethel A.M.E. Church as a museum and library of regional black history. Built by freed slaves, the brick church is one of the oldest African-American churches in the state.
In Pokagon, Mich. (pop. 2,199), preservationists are raising money to save the humble First Methodist Episcopal Church where the popular hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” was first publicly performed.
“In one place, the church wall was resting on the ground and the whole thing was sagging,” says Marta Dodd, of Jackson, Mich., who is promoting the project in part because her grandfather was present at the 1913 revival where the Rev. George Bennard debuted his song.
Dwindling congregations have taken a toll on tens of thousands of churches nationwide, particularly in rural areas, yet in the hearts of devoted caretakers the sacred landmarks remain community treasures.
“Churches are usually the most prominent and important architecture in town,” says Tuomi Forrest, director of Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based preservation group. “Churches tell the history of this country like no other building.”
Preservation on the prairie
North Dakota, home to several thousand rural churches, has the nation’s most active restoration program.
European immigrants built many of the churches on the North Dakota prairie from the 1880s to 1920s. By 1930, when the state’s population peaked at 680,000, church steeples towered like lighthouses over the treeless prairie every six miles—a day’s wagon ride apart.
“The churches stand in the middle of fields without any towns,” says Dale Bentley, executive director of Preservation North Dakota, which funds restoration projects. “It’s a North Dakota phenomenon.”
A 1999 survey by the grassroots organization found that 500 rural churches, out of 2,200 statewide, were abandoned. The endangered buildings, some with wind whipping through gaping roofs and walls, are testament to the faith, lives and labor of the nation’s pioneers.
“These churches tell stories of baptisms, weddings, church schools, picnics, funerals,” Bentley adds. “There are more human connections to churches than to any other building you can imagine.” Since the survey, Preservation North Dakota has help fund 30 restoration projects, including one at the Tonset Lutheran Church near Lignite (pop. 174), which volunteers saved—twice.
In July 2002, not long after reshingling the roof and replacing windows knocked out by a hailstorm, church caretakers faced an even bigger challenge when lightning struck the steeple and fire toppled the bell tower.
“They had used up all their resources and didn’t have any insurance,” Bentley recalls. “Pieces were lying over the churchyard and it didn’t look like they could recover from something like that.”
But believers like Ody Berg, 82, who has watched over the church since services ended in 1968, and Shirley McEvers, whose parents and grandparents are buried in the churchyard, didn’t hesitate to donate money and manpower.
“We decided that it was our turn now,” says McEvers, secretary-treasurer of the Tonset Lutheran Church Historical Society. “Our grandparents and parents had done their part.” Their Swedish and Norwegian ancestors had built the church on the hill in 1916, naming it after Tynset, Norway. Bentley adds, “People couldn’t imagine driving home and not seeing that steeple.”
In 2005, another beloved North Dakota landmark, St. Catherine’s of Lomice in Walsh County (pop. 12,389), was rescued by about two dozen worshippers. Immigrants from Czechoslovakia built the Catholic church in 1934, naming it “Lomice” after a town in their homeland.
“Can you imagine—that was all field rock hauled in by horses,” says Daniel Kouba, 73, admiring the solid walls of brown and red stones dug from nearby fields.
“When the Catholic diocese recommended that this church be bulldozed, I was so hurt. Our forefathers would have turned over in their graves,” says Kouba, who helped form Preservation Lomice and secure the church’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, volunteers maintain the landmark’s original shingle roof and mow around their ancestors’ gravestones in the hillside cemetery.
Not every restored North Dakota prairie church is filled with pews and a pulpit. Many church buildings have been adapted for uses other than worship services.
In Stanley (pop. 1,279), a 1928 brick Tudor-style Presbyterian church has been converted into the Sibyl Center for Life Enrichment for art and musical events, and in nearby Plaza (pop. 167), grant money was used to repair the foundation, shingle and paint an 1876 church that today houses the Plaza Community Museum.
Across the state in Park River (pop. 1,535), Jason and Tara Lindell are transforming a 1920 brick Greco-Roman-style church into a home with 22-foot ceilings, stained-glass windows, and bedrooms in the choir loft. Jason uses the basement for his stained glass studio.
Still, some church caretakers, such as Johnson at the Swede Church, stubbornly cling to tradition. He and other descendants of the farmers who built the church dug into their own pockets to match a $7,500 grant from Preservation North Dakota to repair the steeple and install new siding last year.
Each June, they picnic on the church grounds, a reminder of the socials held 75 to 100 years ago when the kids enjoyed rare treats of bottles of soda pop. “We used to have a whole bunch of bananas that they’d hang in a tree and we could take a knife and cut one off for a nickel,” Johnson recalls.
On Christmas Eve, Johnson and a few neighbors gather in the bitter cold at the Swede Church to ring the bell for 30 minutes. They phone people across the United States with ties to the old church and let them listen.
Every 12 seconds, just as the tone almost falls silent, Johnson reaches up and tugs the rope again, ensuring that the spirit of the beloved church doesn’t die