About half of the acreage was occupied by the church building which was surrounded by a treeless and huge open yard on three sides. The cemetery filled the other half, with the earliest dates of death around 1910, after the area was settled by immigrant Danes looking for some place to farm. They had had to settle for eastern Montana, since most of North Dakota and Minnesota was already filled with Swedes, Norwegians and Germans who had arrived around the mid-19th century.
We would arrive at church about 15 minutes before the service was to begin and found ourselves in the same places Sunday after Sunday. The women would have taken their places with their children in the pews prior to the ringing of the bell while the men stood in a long line outside~~some just visiting quietly, some having a cigarette before going inside.
The bell tolled its call to worship in three’s: 3 X 3 X 3- for a total of 27 times.
1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, pause
1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, the service begins.
I always counted to be sure they got it right.
I would also count the pleats in my white and pale-blue organza dress that my big sister had sent to me from California. There were 27 pleats on one side and 25 on the other. Sitting still was difficult for me, and as I pursued that elusive but required behavior, counting things seemed to help.
The teenaged boys who no longer sit with their parents usually fill a long row in the narrow seating area in the balcony, but it seemed they never did figure out that as they thus “set themselves apart” from the silly girls and the children, they also placed themselves directly under the observation of the pastor himself for the entire service.
On one occasion when they had obviously overlooked this, the pastor quietly announced a meeting as he closed the service, “Immediately after the service this morning, I would like to meet with the parents of……” and he named the four strapping farm boys who had been in the balcony that morning. Our parents were invited to join that brief conversation. Nothing was said about it on the endless, five minute drive home a bit later. I’m not aware of any further conversation our parents may have had with my brother, who was one of the miscreants that day. The pastor never had occasion to call such a meeting again.
Now there was a cry room in the back of the sanctuary, a place where no child ever wanted to go. It specifically was not a nursery of the type where children under the age of three would “spend the morning.” Until a child was about 18 months, it was the mother’s responsibility to be prepared with bottles or a handful of cheerios to feed, distract or comfort the child and keep the baby quiet. Mothers, babies and toddlers always went to church (i.e., the church service) on Sunday morning with the family. They didn’t go to the church building and and then not attend the church service.
The cry room was the deportation destination for a crying toddler until they stopped crying–if the issue was still to be handled by the mother. And because they knew what was good for them, they usually stopped crying before the door was shut behind mother. The phrase “they knew what was good for them” was never a threatening bit of language. It was just a statement of fact. Toddlers didn’t make a trip to the cry room very many times before they figured out–all by themselves, oddly enough–that it was indeed good for them to not go to the cry room. Self-teaching was a strong component of childhood in those days.
Then there were other issues–those handled by the father: a child who needed spanking was not taken to the cry room. Sunday morning spankings were administered out in the churchyard by the child’s father. The child would then be marched straight back to the pew to sit quietly for the remainder of the service. Spankings were never administered because a parent lost their temper. Spankings were administered because the child needed spanking.
When the sermon got too long I would count the individual lights in the chandeliers suspended high about in the ceiling. There were three chandeliers and each had three, three-bulb settings, with groups of nine bulbs arranged into larger design elements. Everything in the lights and the metal work was presented in threes to remind us of the Trinity, which it did.
Unlike the Norwegian Lutheran churches I saw in later years in North Dakota, our Danish Lutheran Church did not have a fishing boat suspended in the front of the church in front of the altar area, and I always wished we did. I guess the Danes just weren’t that into fishing.
That “boat in the church” tradition was rooted in the fact that so many Norwegian families depended on fishing for their livelihood. Every Sunday, the beautiful facsimile fishing vessel was before them as a reminder to pray for the fisherman at sea that day or week, or thank God for all the safe returns of family fishermen and friends who were present in the service. When members of those families emigrated to America, found their way to North Dakota and began to build their churches on the wide prairies, the prayer reminder of the ornate, suspended fishing boat came with them.
There is a Stave Church located at the Hjemkomst Center (photo above) in Moorhead, Minnesota which presents all things Norwegian, including their churches and their little fishing boats. A stave church is a “medieval wooden church with a post and lintel construction related to timer framing. The wall frames are filled with vertical planks. The load-bearing posts (stav in Norwegian) lend their name to the building technique. ” (Wikipedia)
I always did sort of envy the Norwegian kids their church fishing boats. They were really very pretty.