Historic Trondhjem Church in Lonsdale, Minnesota Emily Sajdak
allson Icelandic Church sits in a central location inside the Pioneer Heritage Center Complex of Icelandic State Park in Northeast North Dakota. Founded by Icelandic immigrants in the late nineteenth century, Hallson served as a spiritual home for its immigrant community for over 100 years before being moved to the state park where it now represents the history of the twenty-two ethnic groups that settled in that area.
In mid-July 2021, over two hundred people from the communities surrounding Icelandic State Park and Cavalier, North Dakota gathered to celebrate the history of Hallson and to engage with four artists chosen to create new folk art pieces for the church. Each artist spent time talking with the visitors and demonstrating their craft, with some expressing an interest in learning the art forms. Everyone was excited at the prospect of seeing these folk art pieces completed at the dedication event in Spring of 2022.
Louise Bath, a Vesterheim Gold Medalist in Rosemaling, teaches workshop participants about the history and basic techniques of Norwegian rosemaling at Historic Trondhjem Church in Lonsdale, Minnesota, in April 2022.
Historic Nordic American churches are deeply embedded in many communities in the Upper Midwest, and their buildings, community engagement, ethnic traditions, and food events are significant civic assets to the larger community. Over the past five years, Partners for Sacred Places has been working with churches in Nordic communities across the region to help them preserve their buildings and sustain their continued presence in their communities.
The commissioning of new folk art builds on an earlier phase of Partners’ Nordic Churches program, which involved working with a cohort of 17 churches to carry out repair and restoration projects with local craftspeople, utilizing matching grant funds that were available as part of the program. The selected churches represented the ethnic and geographic diversity of the region, and the buildings reflected Nordic heritage through their architecture, decorative arts, and maintenance of ethnic traditions.
Another of the current folk art projects is being carried out by Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Viborg, South Dakota. Our Savior’s is a congregation founded by Danish immigrants in the late nineteenth century, and the building features woodwork and an altar painting by Jes Smidt—a Danish immigrant woodcarver well known in the region for his carved pulpits and altars. Our Savior’s is among the best of Smidt’s intact interiors.
Interior of Hallson Church featuring the commissioned pieces: two ﬂoor-mounted decorative iron rods by Dennis Schill, two Swedish bonadsmalning paintings by Pieper Bloomquist, two carved wooden bowls by Rev. Jim Paulson in the style of traditional Nordic ale bowls to be used as a baptismal bowl and dipper, and three Hardanger paraments for the altar, pulpit, and table. Emily Laaveg
Unlike many other Danish churches, however, Our Savior’s did not have a ship model hanging from the ceiling in its center aisle. While this tradition has its roots in Catholic churches in Europe, the Danes—as a seafaring nation—adopted the tradition because ships held special significance. These ships could commemorate loved ones lost at sea, a safe return home, a safe journey across the sea to America, and larger themes, too: navigating the storms of life with God’s help, and the transition from this world to the next.
The team at Our Savior’s wanted to use a grant from the Nordic Churches program to install a ship in its sanctuary. Our Savior’s ship was donated by a former church member’s grandfather—also a former member of Our Savior’s—who worked in the Danish shipyards in Copenhagen prior to coming to America.
While most of the community events planned for the project needed to be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are now set to take place across the region in the coming months. When asked to reflect on the importance of the project and its effect on the church and community, Corene Vaughn, project manager for Hallson Icelandic Church, said that “It is a proven fact that the presence of tangible objects and witnessing historic activities create a remembrance of what was taught or experienced during a time in the life of people. Hopefully the four planned events and the tangible pieces of art will help to keep the Nordic folk traditions and customs alive and well. It is human nature to wonder and seek information about who we are and what had happened in the past to make us the people we are today.”
Hallson Church, Icelandic State Park, North Dakota
Arlys Sorby, the needleworker who created Hallson Church’s hardanger paraments, talks with a visitor to Hallson’s community event in July 2021. (Barb Gunderson)