There’s a tiny country church in the sparsely populated hills north of Murdo, South Dakota, where the only sounds that break the silence are the chipping of birds and the creaking cattle gates moving in the wind.
Immanuel Lutheran Church is located 17 miles down a roller coaster ribbon of gravel road. Its simple cross-topped steeple looks over acres of grazing lands, home to Ted Turner’s buffalo herds.
Over a few hills and down into the next valley is the childhood home of Barb Godfrey. She splits her time between the family ranch and Rapid City, where her husband Bob is from. Godfrey has led the effort to preserve the little church that her Norwegian grandparents helped start in the early 1900s. She’s organized fundraisers and kept people involved in the rural church, which closed in 1968. She took it upon herself to restore all the wood furniture – the altar, communion rail and rows of pews, each adorned with the Luther rose.
But she doesn’t do it for herself.
“We keep it as a memory for our families,” Godfrey said.
Grandparents from both her mother’s and father’s sides of the family – the Liffengrens and the Boes – are buried in the cemetery outside the church’s front doors. There are about 80 graves in all under the arched metal Immanuel sign.
Godfrey’s mother was a large part of keeping the church going, even when attendance was thin in 1960s. At services, she played the old pump organ, which still sits at the front of the church. She was part of the Ladies Aid group that put on a turkey dinner in the fall and sewed pillowcases and quilts to sell. The money was used for building upkeep and to support mission work.
It was the women of the congregation that spurred the organization of the early church. They formed the Helping Hand Society in the summer of 1907 to benefit a Sunday school and other community causes. They called their first pastor – two of them, actually – that fall and paid them $2 per service. Immanuel Lutheran became an official congregation in July 1908.
In the early days, afternoon services were spoken in English while the Norwegian speaking crowd had the early service.
Starting in 1914, the ladies put on a fall bazaar to raise money. It continued each year but 1918. The ladies decided to dedicate their handiwork to the war effort that year. Eight boys from the church were serving in World War I, and only two came home alive.
The church was built in 1924, and the women of the church continued to raise money to pay for an altar, pulpit and pews. In 1928, they added an altar top with an oil painting of Jesus. Other improvements included the curved communion rail and marble baptism font. In 1940, the steeple got a bell.
For many years, Immanuel Lutheran shared a pastor with the church in Midland. Not only the pastor had a long way to travel to church, members did, too. For that reason, services were held in the afternoons, Godfrey said.
The church’s official address is Van Metre, South Dakota. The unincorporated community is nestled in a crook of the Bad River in northern Jones County.
“It’s wide open country here,” Godfrey said.
The church sits on a flat by White Clay Creek with an outhouse out back and an old, dilapidated school house nearby. Godfrey’s mother attended school there and her aunt was a teacher.
The church never had running water. It was her parents’ job to fill cream cans with water for making coffee after church. Because they lived only a few miles from the church, they would host kids who lived further out during summer Bible school.
“I grew up spending lot of time here at this church,” she said.
There have been efforts to preserve the church for more than 35 years. In 1982, Godfrey’s cousin, Ida Jansen, made a large oil painting of the church to be auctioned off in a fundraising effort.
“We decided we needed to do something to keep the church,” Godfrey said.
In recent years, more families have taken a greater interest in restoring and preserving the 1924 building. Deloris Iversen of Murdo played an active role in the restoration efforts before she passed away last January.
Volunteers took on one major overhaul a few years ago when they had the church straightened. The roof had started to sag and the rafters were cracking. They took down the plaster walls and put up paneling. Next up, caretakers are hoping to replace the wood siding.
It’s important to Godfrey to keep the church standing in its original place.
“It’s a memorial to the people in the cemetery that built it,” she said.
Immanuel Lutheran stays alive in another way. The doors are open for a service once a month through the summer. Services are typically held the third Sunday of the month from May until October, as long as the weather holds. As many as 50 people attend, coming from Midland, Vivian and other surrounding communities. A pastor from Presho presides.
Last summer, the church hosted a special sacrament that it hasn’t seen in years. A baby was baptized at one of the summer services.
Godfrey takes the summer gatherings as an opportunity to revisit the church of her childhood and take in the rolling prairie landscape.
“It’s so peaceful,” she said.
Some research for this article was provided by Sonia Nemec, who grew up in the Moenville area and now resides in Spearfish, South Dakota.
Prayers on the Prairie is a winter feature of the Tri-State Neighbor. If you know a rural church to feature, contact editor Janelle Atyeo at 605-335-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.