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When Europeans first settled the Midwest in the last century, a church was one of the first buildings built in each new town. The church was often the spiritual, cultural, and social center of the community. But nowadays as small towns lose population, hundreds of churches have closed, and many of the survivors are struggling to stay open. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is creating a pilot project in North Dakota to save historically significant churches.
ON A RAINY FEBRUARY DAY, about 30 people crowd into the old stone church in Buffalo, North Dakota, about 30 miles west of Fargo. This is a rare church, made of uncut fieldstone. Local, state, and national officials are gathering here to talk about saving it and other churches.
The 100-year-old pump organ drowns the sound of rain drumming on the roof as an impromptu solo entertains the group. Dale Bentley is one of the local residents who has worked hard to keep the old church from crumbling.
Bentley: We call it a prairie cathedral because that's what it is. Just a simple little prairie church.
Most rural small town churches were simply built, but North Dakota State University architect professor Steve Marten says they often set the standard for craftsanship in the days before power tools.
Marten: Many architects' specifications not that long ago, about 50 years ago, had a clause that said the carpentry on this project should be first class, but this is no Swedish church.
Now many of those lovingly constructed churches are abandoned - uncared for and rotting away. Hundreds of churches in small towns are hanging on, their membership graying and dwindling. Marten says churches built when settlers arrived were a symbol of strong religious belief and optimism for the future.
Marten: I think when we lose the churches, it's almost a loss of faith, or it questions or shakes our faith, even though oftentimes it's a pragmatic, practical matter.
Anita Hovland says the church she's attended for 18 years in a nearby town is facing what appears to be an inevitable demise.
Hovland: Some people think we have about five years in our future, 'cause we have no little kids left.
Hovland says the church will stay open as long as people will make the financial commitment.
Hovland: I think everybody is giving as much as they can because it is important to them, but you have so many other places your money has to go, so you only have so much you can give. Your emotions can't take over. You have to say "Okay, I guess we did our best."
Money may be the determining factor in closing a church, but many, like Keith Biggers, feel losing a church leaves a large void in the town's psyche.
Biggers: What is there to do in a small town? You can go to the bar and play pool, or you can go to church. We have a lot of, I guess it sounds kinda mushy, but just a good feeling of being with the church family. There's a strong faith that makes the building important and makes the people even more important.
The creaking floors betray its age, but the First Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, North Dakota is obviously still lovingly cared for. It's one of three churches still operating in this town of 200. That's not the norm. Many small towns have two or three vacant churches. Mary Humstone is with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She's disturbed by the number of churches already beyond saving.
Humstone: Probably we should have been here 10 or 15 years ago. We just took a tour yesterday and we saw a lot that had been abandoned or had deteriorated a lot, so, yeah; it does have some urgency.
Humstone says not all churches can or should be saved, but those that are historically important need to be identified soon. She says the National Trust hopes to provide education, technical expertise, and funding to the effort to save rural churches.