In the Spotlight

News & Features
Filmmaker Reveals Histories of Rural Churches
By Gretchen Lehmann
August 7, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

No matter what rural road you travel in Minnesota, you won't drive far without seeing a church steeple peeking up on the horizon. Some of these belong to white clapboard buildings and red brick cathedrals where church bells still ring and congregations meet each Sunday. But there are other churches tucked away on small gravel roads that are silent and all-but-forgotten. One Minnesota woman is spending this year filming these hidden treasures to reveal their lost history.

CINDY GREEN CAREFULLY STUDIES THE GRANITE blocks that form the walls and steeple of St. Cornelia Episcopal Church. She's looking for the right visual to help her tell the story of this small church, built back in the 1860s on the Lower Sioux Reservation in southern Minnesota. Green is at work on a three-part documentary. The film will look at the history and architecture of country churches and what they say about the people who settled in the Midwest.

Green: Do they have electricity in here? I like that brick background.
St. Cornelia is just the kind of church Green wants in her documentary; it's a church that prompts curiosity.
Green: You know, the kind of churches that people drive by and say, "Who built this church?" "Why did they build it?" You know? "Why does it look like this?" "Why should we save this?"
Green is looking for churches tucked behind trees and nestled in cornfields. Ideally, they look just as they did when they were first built. It sounds like a tall order, but Green says it's surprising how many still exist.
Green: One that comes to mind is a little Baptist church in southeastern Minnesota, in Minnesota City. We walked into this church and immediately we were in the 1800s, because there's nothing in the church that's newer than 120 years old. It had the original gas lanterns and there's this immersion tank - this zinc-lined immersion tank - behind the pulpit hidden under this rug, so that church was just a gem.
Green and her film crew have had this experience over and over again. At a Russian Orthodox church in Koochiching County, and a Catholic church in southwestern Minnesota the crew has dubbed "The Cathedral in the Cornfield." John Hageland is the film's director.
Hageland: It's just interesting to see the diversity, and it's also interesting to see how proud people are of their churches, especially the ones that carry on churches that don't even have congregations anymore. It's amazing.
There's a common notion, according to Cindy Green, that country churches in the Midwest are either Scandinavian Lutheran or German Catholic. In truth, many denominations built churches in small farming communities throughout the Midwest as far back at the 1850s. One such church is Salem Evangelical Church just outside of Paynesville.

Salem sits atop a hill in the middle of acres of corn and soybean fields. There is no longer an active congregation here, and the church sits silent 364 days a year. The first members were not Lutheran or Catholic, like their neighbors, so they formed a community of their own around Salem church. Rick Miller's memories of Salem involve hot days and hard pews.

Miller: The pews have a reputation with everyone who's been in them on a hot summer day. You'll find everything from newspaper imprint, to just marks where someone has an imprint on the back of their dress or trousers with varnish.
In its heyday, Salem church boasted more than 600 members. Today, a handful of former members keep watch on the building and lead an effort to restore the yellow-brick church with its red front doors and tall white wooden steeple. Once a year, on the second weekend of August, the building is opened up and friends and former members celebrate the church which shaped their lives.
Miller: If you sit in this building and you listen to the hymns and you sense the gratitude and the satisfaction that is in people's hearts as they together share the experience - it draws people in.
Miller, who now lives in St. Cloud, says he's driven to preserve Salem Church not so much for the building itself, but for what it has come to represent. Its pews and simple decoration tell the story of people bound by faith and determined to find a new home and build a new community. Cindy Green says that's the story she wants to tell. Green and her crew will continue filming in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas over the next year. The documentary is set to air on public television some time in the year 2000. Salem Church celebrates its annual parish reunion on Saturday.