By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
Joann and I took our first trip to southeastern Minnesota in August of 1997. We wanted to visit several mills and wander around a little to see what else we could find. We picked up some travel literature and as Joann photographed along the backroads, I paged through the county brochures to see what historic sites were highlighted.
The Filmore County brochure mentioned the historic Lenora church, so we decided to make that one of our stops. We took a few photos that day and continued on our way.
During our next several trips to Minnesota, Joann asked if we would be near the church again, but it didn’t fit into our other plans. Finally, in the fall of 2011, we managed to make it a part of our trip, and this time we came away with many more photos and a little bit of history about the church.
When Minnesota was still a territory, Methodist circuit riders brought religion to the area. They would travel on horseback on their circuit and preach in barns, cabins, and fields. One of these camp meetings was in the future location of Lenora which sometimes had crowds of 2,000 or more. Families would come to the meetings bringing provisions and would stay for days or weeks.
Elder John l. Dyer envisioned the town of Lenora with a grand church. He donated 40 acres of his claim for the church. The plans were to have a large church with an academy in the basement. Work began on a stone building in 1856 and continued until the next spring with money he raised by selling lots in the town of Lenora. The financial Panic of 1857 was hard on the Great Lakes region and many people became discouraged by the pioneer life and the financial hardships. Many pulled up stakes and returned to their previous homes in the east.
Dyer also left, and the church was abandoned with half-finished stone walls which stood for the next eight years. By 1865 prosperity had returned to the area and a stonemason began work on the current Lenora church using the material from the original stone walls. This new, smaller church was completed in 1866 and was dedicated by the Reverend Daniel Cobb.
Lenora, like many towns, pinned their hopes for the future on the railroad coming through their town. When the railroad bypassed the town in the 1870’s, the community declined, and by the late 1920’s, the Lenora Church was closed and the townspeople moved to other local parishes.
The church sat empty and abandoned until the Lenora Cemetery Association and the Newburg United Methodist Church began caring for the old church and kept it from ruin.
Today the church has services for special occasions, and can be used for other meetings and functions. The church has no electricity and is heated by an old wood stove. Light is provided by oil chandeliers and lamps in wall sconces and on windowsills. There is also an old-fashioned reed pump organ and the original pews.
As we hunt up and photograph these old locations, we often wonder what life was like back then. Visiting this old church gave us a small glimpse into pioneer life in Minnesota.