By Joann M. Ringelstettter
On September 1 of this year, I received a typical email from Ruth with a subject line that read, “How can we get this before it’s gone?” Inside the email was simply a link to an article entitled, “Hidden Places: Estonian Church Slowly Returns to Dust.”
I looked at the photo that was included with the article and I knew we had to make plans to go in the near future. The church is located several hours from us, so I emailed back and suggested we take an extended weekend and make an early fall trip up north.
On the last Saturday of September, we left home in the pre-dawn hours and began our journey north. As is usually the case, we had much we wanted to photograph on the way there and again on the way back. We feel this makes the best use of the miles we put on the car and the gallons of fuel we put in the tank. And, thanks to Ruth’s dedication to her research, there seems to be no end to the opportunities we are afforded.
By the time we reached the area where we thought the church was located, it was well after dark, so we proceeded to our lodging about ten miles north of there. After unloading and backing up the photos from the day, we hit the sack in anticipation of our visit to the church at dawn. On Sunday morning, we arose in darkness, loaded the car, and drove the ten miles back to where Ruth thought the church was.
As the first hint of light descended from the heavens, we turned down a dead-end road and drove a short distance. When we reached the end of the pavement, there was just a driveway going into a residence. “This can’t be the road,” I said. “Keep driving,” Ruth responded. There was a dirt road continuing on from the pavement and running along two farm fields. I drove slowly to the end of this dirt road and stopped the car. What lay in front of us were more farm fields. As my heart sank and we started looking around, we suddenly spotted the abandoned church tucked way back into the woods.
The good news is that someone still cares about this lonely old structure and had mowed the weeds around it. The bad news is that the church is in a sad state of disrepair. The entryway was just a gaping hole in the front of the gray weathered building and the windows, long devoid of glass, had boards nailed across them in a horizontal pattern.
Ruth and I stood for a long while at the edge of the woods in reverent silence as if we were standing in the back of church just before Sunday morning service. It was raining a bit and the wind was rustling the leaves that were just beginning to show a hint of fall color. The church was beautiful, even in this state of deterioration.
According to our research, there was a small presence of Estonian immigrants in America around the turn of the twentieth century. The first Estonian Lutheran Church congregation in America was founded in 1897 in Ft. Pierre, South Dakota. And this humble structure that now stood before us was built in 1914 and was the first Estonian church building erected in America.
In a series of local articles published in 1978, reporter Sharon Thatcher documented the history of this church and its congregation. According to Ms. Thatcher, worship services were first held in someone’s home. By 1903, according to Rev. Hans Rebane, a traveling minister serving this Estonian community, there were 29 members in the congregation.
In 1907, three of its members each put up $25 to purchase four acres of land, on which the church would eventually be built. First, however, they would honor their dead by establishing a cemetery in 1909. Only 14 people were buried in this little cemetery and some of these graves have since been relocated. Ruth tried to find the cemetery on the grounds behind the church, but the understory was thick and she couldn’t find it.
While Ruth was busy looking for the cemetery, I respectfully peered into this historical church. Where once there were rows of backless wooden benches, with the men sitting on one side of the church and the women and children on the other, there was now an empty floor strewn with debris. Where once there were flowers from worshipers’ gardens adorning the sanctuary, there was rubble from plaster that had fallen from the ceiling. Where once there was an altar consisting of a simple wooden table covered with a crocheted altar cloth, there stood a beautiful wooden pulpit, as if waiting for the traveling minister to one day return.
The membership in this congregation peaked around 1930 with about 135 members. Following 1930, membership declined as members of this Estonian community moved to larger cities. As membership continued to decline, the little Estonian church was only used occasionally into the late 1950s.
In 1964, the last reunion of Estonians took place on the 50th anniversary of the church. Sometime after this event, vandals attacked the church, smashing the door and windows, and stealing or destroying the altar and benches. They even went so far as to steal the bell from the steeple. It was only a small bell that had been donated to the church by the Sears Roebuck Company when the church was built. Now it would summon a congregation no more.
While searching the internet for information on this church, I stumbled on a bit of information about the current owner. His name is Bill Rebane and I believe he is the great nephew of the Rev. Hans Rebane, who helped build the Estonian Evengelical Martin Luther Church and who served there as a minister. In January of this year, Mr. Rebane said, “As dilapidated as it is today, it has a congregation of some 20 plus people” and periodic services are held when weather permits.
We thank Bill Rebane for allowing us to fill our hearts with the humble history of this wonderful church and we hope his wish to save the church for future generations somehow comes true.