Mailboxes and Old Barns: Counting Things in Church

counting 8The church was four miles from our farm and sat inside a chain link fence that surrounded about five acres of land that had been set aside in the early 1900s for the purpose.

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.cemetery old

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.

church bell1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, pause

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 27counting 3 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 counting 5observation 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 counting 2nine 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 counting1front 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 seaaaaaaa 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.


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6 Responses to Mailboxes and Old Barns: Counting Things in Church

  1. lovemygirl says:

    Just when I get frustrated with the news of the day, you open my heart to the good. 🙂 BTW, I’m a descendant of those dang Norwegian Lutherans.


    • lovemygirl says:

      Mixed with Sicilian and Welsh 😉 The Viking, Brits and Romans compared to my wife’s Irish. Oh, did I forget her German side? Irish and German are a wonderful combination, as long as you always walk away from any argument before you get hurt. 😉


  2. texan59 says:

    Thanks Sharon. I’m gonna ask Big Tex about those Norwegian “Lootren” churches in MN, as that would’ve been his destination on Sunday mornings many years ago.

    While I don’t always comment each week, I do go on this journey with you every Sunday. It is such a joy to get off the Interstate where we’re going 75 mph and go back down the country roads at a much slower pace, even for just a few minutes. The trials and travails that we deal with are set aside and we go back to a time where things just seemed better. Thank you. 🙂


  3. 22tula says:

    Sharon, what did You do after Church? Did You go to the bakery?
    Also, I was looking for a poem about trees for the Treehouse Birthday and came across this poem.


    • Sharon says:

      There were no bakeries in our little town, which was 13 miles from the country church. We only/always went home…when the magic of electricity (installed in 1952) would mean that the roast or the chicken for classic Sunday dinner had filled the house with wonderful aroma! Add the veggies and cut the home made pie–and dinner was on the table. Then Sunday afternoon for naps, visiting neighbors or going for long walks “down in the pasture.”


      • 22tula says:

        I remember Sunday dinner’s minus the homemade pie. The bakery was close to the Church and it was packed after Mass. Jelly Donuts 🙂


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