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Issue-Based Preservation: The Prairie Churches of North Dakota Project  

12-09-2015 17:35

At the outset, it seemed implausible. Could an all-volunteer preservation group with little money, no staff, and few active board members successfully take on a huge preservation issue involving hundreds of structures and powerful socioeconomic forces? Not likely.

Or maybe it was a case of little to lose and much to gain? That was how the board of Preservation North Dakota (PND) saw their situation back in 1998. Formed in 1991, the group had established a modest track record by hosting annual conferences, presenting awards, and printing an occasional newsletter. But it seemed that the audience for these activities was always the same 30 or 40 people. Board members became discouraged, attendance at meetings declined, and PND’s survival was in doubt.

The solution -- developed with the support of partners including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the State Historical Society of North Dakota -- was to focus on a major issue with the potential to engage a much larger audience: the loss of the state’s historic churches. Six years later, the success of the Prairie Churches of North Dakota Project illustrates how even small preservation organizations can grow and become more effective by concentrating on key issues affecting their states and communities.

The Issue: Endangered Rural Churches

The plight of North Dakota’s rural churches was not a new concern. In fact, the statewide “crisis” of declining rural congregations and abandoned churches developed over a period of 70 years.

North Dakota’s population rose quickly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as waves of immigrants from northern and eastern Europe moved west, seeking prosperity and religious freedom. The flood of settlement reached its high point in 1930, when North Dakota’s population hit 682,000. Farming on the dry plains proved difficult, however, and population began slowly receding from many rural areas.

This gradual rural depopulation continued for decades, driven by labor-saving farming practices, declining commodity prices, and the lure of out-of-state employment opportunities. Between 1990 and 2000, all but 6 of North Dakota’s 53 counties lost population. Only the counties that included larger, sprawling towns such as Fargo and Bismarck experienced significant growth. Similar trends have affected the entire Great Plains region and much of the agricultural Midwest.

In North Dakota, these changes left behind a landscape dotted with farmsteads, commercial main streets, schools, and churches built to serve a resident population that was once much larger. Churches are particularly numerous, in part because early immigrants sought to maintain the faiths and traditions of their homelands. Settlers from Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine each built their own separate houses of worship, even in smaller towns. For example, before World War I in the town of Dickinson, Catholic services were held in three languages: German, Bohemian, and English. Each required a separate church.

Today many of these churches remain standing, providing tangible connections to North Dakota’s rich ethnic heritage. Many are simple wood-frame structures visible for miles on the open prairie landscape. Others are large cathedrals designed by architects and built in stone or brick to serve farm families from the surrounding countryside. Often these structures house original stained glass windows, altar paintings, carvings and statues. Church grounds frequently include stone grottos, shrines, iron crosses and other grave markers.

Although the overall level of church membership remains high in North Dakota (only Utah has a higher percentage), most rural congregations are shrinking. As few as a dozen members remain to support many country churches. The average age of rural church members is well over sixty. As a result, budgets are modest and many churches have suffered from years of deferred or inadequate maintenance. Church leaders have responded as best they can, but consolidation, closure, and demolition are common occurrences.

Partners Organize to Address a Common Concern

The history of North Dakota’s churches was the subject of a 1997 conference entitled “Deep Roots: Preserving Our Sacred Heritage,” organized by the state historical society. This conference increased understanding and awareness of the state’s religious architecture and folk traditions among preservationists and historical society members from around the state. It also raised the question: What, if anything, could be done to save historic church buildings and artifacts?

Three months later representatives from local preservation groups, historical societies, church congregations, the SHPO, PND, and the National Trust met to examine this question in more detail. Each group looked at the church preservation issue from a different perspective.

For some it was simply a matter of how to keep a particular church open for services. Others expressed interest in the architecture of specific denominations, altar paintings, or cemetery art. Many commented on the importance of maintaining churches as anchors of community life and focal points for future revitalization. At the Mountains/ Plains Office of the National Trust, we hoped that preservation strategies for North Dakota churches could be developed and shared with other states facing similar challenges.

As the many dimensions of the church preservation issue were articulated, it became obvious that no single organization could tackle this problem. Partnerships were necessary to produce meaningful results. Because the scope of the issue was so large, there appeared to be plenty of work for all and little need to battle over turf. The organizations that gathered for this initial meeting continued to plan and work together in coming months, each taking significant roles. Other groups soon joined the effort, including Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based organization seeking to become more involved in rural church preservation nationwide. The Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University brought additional resources and credibility to the project.

Researching and Owning the Issue

The partners agreed that additional research was needed to learn more about the condition of historic churches in the state. There were many unanswered questions: How many churches were there in North Dakota? Why were they closing? What kinds of building repairs were needed? What were possible adaptive use alternatives? To find the answers, the partners decided to conduct a statewide volunteer photo-documentation project that was called “Picture North Dakota Churches!”

Dozens of volunteers signed up to help carry out this survey, many of them members of the North Dakota Local History Council, a coalition of city and county historical societies. Funding from the National Trust and the SHPO allowed a part-time consultant to recruit and manage the volunteers. The SHPO also supplied film and survey forms, processed and cataloged the photographs, and provided overall supervision to insure that the survey met professional standards. Volunteers logged more than 15,000 miles driving up and down North Dakota’s back roads, documenting every standing church in each of the state’s 53 counties. Their work produced an invaluable permanent record of church architecture and resulted in several key findings:

  • There are 2,200 church buildings in North Dakota
  • 78 percent are in rural areas or small towns with populations under 2,500
  • 57 percent were built before 1950
  • 20 percent are closed; there are more than 400 vacant churches
  • 7 percent are being used for another purpose, including as museums, community centers, private homes, bars, machine shops, and barns • As many as 10 churches are closing every year

The survey took more than a year to complete. During this time National Trust staff gathered more information through a series of interviews with experts and stakeholders, including leaders from each of the major denominations, architects, historians, sociologists, demographers, government staff, and nonprofit directors. Numerous onsite interviews with local congregation members provided further insights and anecdotes about the challenge of maintaining older churches when there are small budgets and few volunteers. Examples of successful church preservation efforts were collected, along with suggestions for future technical assistance.

Results from the surveys, interviews, and site visits were shared at a series of regional meetings attended by more than 150 people. The media were invited as well, and -- somewhat surprisingly -- they attended. The research results were news! With facts and figures in hand, the project partners quickly became quotable experts on the subject of historic churches. Numerous articles, interviews, and special reports began to appear about the newly named Prairie Churches of North Dakota Project. Awareness and expectations grew.

The Organizational Benefits of Focusing on a Preservation Issue

By the fall of 1999, it was time to begin thinking about how to implement some of the ideas for saving endangered rural churches in North Dakota. A grant to the National Trust from the Bush Foundation of Minneapolis helped the partners to create a strategic plan that detailed a range of new programs and services. A critical piece of this plan was increasing PND’s capacity to lead the project.

Developing a successful nonprofit organization is particularly challenging in rural states such as North Dakota, where distance and sparse population make it difficult to find members, recruit board leadership, and secure stable funding. Throughout its short history, PND had failed to overcome these barriers and grew slowly, if at all. It was with little hesitation, therefore, that the PND board decided to take a risk and commit all of its resources to the Prairie Churches Project. They never looked back.

To increase public awareness of the Prairie Churches Project, PND and the other partners continued soliciting media interest whenever possible. A new round of stories appeared in 2001, after the Prairie Churches of North Dakota were named to the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. North Dakota Congressman Earl Pomeroy joined PND to announce the listing in front of a historic Moravian church. He applauded the Prairie Churches Project, and said that historic churches were “the billboards of North Dakota.”

The credibility and visibility of the Prairie Churches Project further increased when major national media began taking an interest. Communication with several publications resulted in stories, including a well-illustrated piece in House Beautiful magazine, a front-page feature in the Sunday New York Times, a Christmas day story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and, most recently, a Washington Post magazine feature.

North Dakota residents couldn’t help noticing all the attention being paid to their state’s church architecture. As word about the Prairie Churches Project spread, memberships and small donations began trickling in to PND. The media coverage and focus on churches also made it easier for PND officers to explain the goals of their organization to potential new board members. Several former survey volunteers joined the PND board, along with church representatives, businesspeople, and university faculty.

North Dakota has no major foundations and few corporations, so fundraising has always been a struggle for nonprofits, especially statewide groups. The strongest financial support for the Prairie Churches Project has come from outside the state, including from individuals as far away as California and New Jersey. The office of North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan helped secure a $100,000 Save America’s Treasures (SAT) grant for the project. Most of the SAT funds were passed through PND to help local groups preserve historic churches that are no longer used for religious purposes.

In late 2001 the National Trust responded to a query from the J. M. Kaplan Fund of New York City. The Kaplan Fund was looking to support cultural heritage preservation in selected cross-border ecosystems, including the Great Plains of the United States and Canada. Recognizing that the Prairie Churches Project was a perfect fit for their interests, the Kaplan Fund awarded PND a $100,000 matching grant.

Portions of both the SAT and Kaplan Fund grants were used to match a Collaborative Pilot Grant from the National Trust. This funding allowed PND to hire its first professional staff person -- former survey volunteer and PND past president Dale Bentley. As the National Trust’s Statewide and Local Partners Program demonstrated, the benefits of having full-time staff are numerous. Gaining a staff person allowed PND to begin delivering a range of services to support local preservation efforts.

The centerpiece of PND’s technical assistance is a Grassroots Grants program that has assisted more than 20 church preservation projects. These grants often fund basic repairs: roof replacement, foundation work, painting, installation of security systems. In some cases PND has helped create new affiliate organizations to manage these projects. For instance, PND helped form an organization in the town of Stanley, which is converting an abandoned church into a new arts and community center.

Another small grant was used to support a PND demonstration project. Believing that they needed to roll up their sleeves and get involved locally, PND board members selected an abandoned church to rehabilitate in the summer of 2001. PND board members and volunteers contributed more than 3,000 hours to convert the turn-of-the-century church into a new community center.

PND has documented a range of church preservation success stories from across the state in the hopes that these examples will inspire similar projects. These projects illustrate different strategies for preserving churches, including continued use for religious services, adaptive use, and occasional use. Through the Prairie Churches Project, PND has shown that many historic churches can be saved for periodic summer use, including for special events such as weddings, family reunions, homecomings, funerals, and heritage services.

The Prairie Churches of North Dakota Project reached a milestone in the fall of 2003, when a new exhibit about recent statewide church preservation efforts opened at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. The exhibit was jointly sponsored by the SHPO, PND, and the National Trust and featured photographs and case studies gathered since the project began in 1998. More than 250 people attended the exhibit opening.

Future Directions

Through its leadership in the Prairie Churches Project, PND has gained a reputation as the leader of the statewide grassroots preservation movement. The organization is expanding its interests beyond churches. In addition to providing technical assistance to local preservation organizations, PND now manages an endangered list, organizes an annual conference and awards program, publishes a quarterly newsletter, and hosts a popular statewide preservation list-serve.

Both PND and the Prairie Churches of North Dakota Project continue to grow and evolve. With support from the Kaplan Fund, PND is now reaching across the Canadian border to explore partnerships with organizations in Manitoba and Saskatchewan that are dealing with similar issues. Ideas for possible cross-border conferences, tours, and exhibits are being discussed.

Seeking to capitalize on state and national awareness of their work with historic churches, PND recently took its first steps into the world of nonprofit business development and earned income. It has trademarked the “Prairie Churches” name, along with a new tagline, “Preserving Prairie Places,” and plans to include an online store as part of an expanded website. Books, postcards, and collectables are among possible future products, all designed to earn unrestricted income while increasing appreciation for historic places.

Though much has been accomplished, no one involved in the Prairie Churches of North Dakota Project believes that the problem of endangered rural churches has been solved. Numerous historic churches have been rescued, but others remain vacant and deteriorating.

The biggest change is that now there is hope for these structures, where as before there was none. A true grassroots preservation movement has developed in North Dakota, led by a reinvigorated PND and supported by partners at every level. All of these organizations became stronger and more effective by working together to achieve a common goal.

Publication Date: Summer 2004


Author(s):James Lindberg

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