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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Saving history

North Dakota organization works to preserve prairie churches

As the clock struck midnight this past New Year’s Day, the bell at Zion Lutheran Church in southwestern North Dakota rang clear across the cold prairie. Church members, most living on nearby farms, had gathered to celebrate the holiday with games, food and fellowship. No one there took the celebration for granted.

Several years ago, the 26-member congregation wondered if the church would stand long enough to celebrate its centennial this summer. The building’s foundation had cracks so large that daylight seeped into the basement. “The blocks were crumbling before our eyes,” said Keith Witte, congregational president. “It was either watch the church fold in or do something about it.”

Preservation North Dakota seeks to
Preservation North Dakota seeks to save churches like this one that dot the North Dakota prairie.
Members committed money and labor to the project, but it wasn’t quite enough. Searching for ways to ease the costs, Witte stumbled across Preservation North Dakota, an organization that brings resources and preservation services to rural areas. One of its missions is to save the state’s prairie church buildings.

Connections, history

“Across North Dakota there are no other buildings that have as many human connections as rural churches,” said Dale R. Bentley, executive director of Preservation North Dakota, Buffalo. “Save them and you save part of the state’s history.”

About 80 percent of North Dakota’s churches are located in areas with a population of less than 2,500 people. More than half of those are historic buildings based on standards set by the National Register of Historic Places, Bentley said. But an aging population and changing trends in farming threaten these small, rural churches.


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