For nearly 95 years, Trinity Lutheran Church outside of Oldham, South Dakota, has held just one service a year, on Memorial Day.
Year round, though, the church serves as a memorial to founding families who dedicated their lives to building the little church on a sloping prairie hill.
Known as the Hill Church, a group of 12 cemetery board members see to its upkeep today.
“It’s an honor,” board member Stuart Apland said. “We’re honoring every single member of that church.”
The memories are important to maintain, added his mother, Kathy Apland. His grandma, Gladys (Abrahamson) Apland, played the old pump organ. She was hired as church organist in 1923, and up until a few years ago, her nephew, Roger Abrahamson, played that same organ at the annual Memorial Day service.
“It takes a lot of effort to pump those bellows,” Abrahamson said.
Cement work also ran in the Abrahamson family. Roger’s uncle made headstones for the family plots and four cement churches that were displayed outside their homes.
“That sat in our yard for years when we lived at the farm,” Roger said.
Now one of the little churches has a new home outside the Hill Church.
“The church is such a peaceful, beautiful place to go,” said Deb Schlagel.
The white steepled church sits within an arc of evergreens. Her dad, Wesley Olson, planted those trees. He and his wife, Mildred, spent their later years caring for the property, each on a riding lawnmower. They, along with Abrahamson’s dad, James, and Olaf Larson took care of anything that needed fixing.
“They took a lot of pride in that place,” Schlagel said. Her mom passed away last year at the age of 100 and is buried by her husband and most of his family at the Hill Church.
Schlagel now lives in Clark but she tries to return to her hometown for the Memorial service she’s been attending since she was a kid. Through the years, it’s like time stands still inside the church.
The building has a high, arced ceiling. Along the edges and on the walls are painted decorative stencils of floral swags. Only the east wall has been repainted. It was scorched when the steeple was hit by lightning in the 1990s.
“A gal spent a lot of time copying the stencils. You can hardly tell where it was done,” Abrahamson said.
At the front of the church is a large altar painting of Jesus praying in Gethsemane. In an arch above, a painting depicts events in Christ’s life.
“It’s pretty much like it was,” Schlagel said.
She grew up going to Oldham Lutheran Church in town. It’s the church Trinity Lutheran joined when members voted to close in 1925.
Trinity’s run of holding regular Sunday services for a community of Scandinavian immigrants was short. It was less than 30 years between the time the congregation joined the church in town and the date in 1896 the country church was organized at the home of M.S. Seim as the Scandinavisk Evangelesh Luthersk Trefoldighedes Meninghed – or the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Trinity congregation.
It isn’t certain why the church decided to close after such a short life. The church minutes note difficulties coming up with enough money to pay the pastor. The 1907 minutes note that Soren Peterson lent the church $27.50 to pay the remainder of the pastor’s $245 salary.
Pastor Evenson had the longest tenure. He came in 1897 to serve as the church’s first leader and resigned in 1911. At that point, Trinity members started inquiring about sharing a pastor with the churches in Oldham and Lake Thompson. Soon, they were discussing merging congregations. The idea was narrowly voted down in 1922 but they ultimately accepted Oldham’s invitation to join forces three years later.
There are no longer living members who remember regular services at the Hill Church, but generations have memories of preparing for Memorial Day services since they were young.
Bonita Albrecht would join her grandma to help dust and clean for the springtime service. It was her job to wipe down the white wooden chairs where members sat before the church had pews. Her grandma was particular about the way they were cleaned, and while Albrecht didn’t like the job, she did look forward to her time with grandma. Afterward, her grandma would take her to the cemetery to visit the graves of their ancestors, the Hans Hansen family.
“We still go out and clean and visit our ancestors after the service,” Albrecht said.
Her great-grandfather came from Denmark. He revisited his home country when he was in his late 20s and returned to America with his future wife, Cathrina Rossen. They were the first couple married in the Trinity church, on Nov. 11, 1899.
At a Memorial Day service in 1953, the Hansen family announced they would have the church painted as a memorial to their mom and dad. Their dad had originally painted the church, and his wife always wished that it could be repainted before she died.
Caring for the church and continuing its traditions is not all about her own family, though, Albrecht said. She sees it as an honor to God and an homage to the strong faith the early members had.
“It’s so important to keep that focus on what’s really important,” she said.
“That’s the root of our faith, too,” added Holly Bickett, whose relatives, the Caspers and the Nelsons, were founding members.
It is tradition to have a potluck after the Memorial Day service. It was once held in the old public school house across the street from the church, but now the potluck takes place at the school gym in town.
Butch Smith looks forward to the gathering each year.
“People come back that we’ve known through all the ages,” he said.
His mother, Elva, grew up on a farmplace a half mile west of the church. She and her eight siblings walked up the hill to church and school.
“That was the center of their social life,” Smith said.
Church gatherings were big events, and his family was known for providing the music. Smith’s grandfather, Lloyd Gerald was the church’s choir director. They were the type of family to gather around the piano and assign vocal parts, and Smith still enjoys music.
He grew up in another country school and another country church, but the Hill Church is where several of his relatives are buried. He said the church is fortunate to have a perpetual source of income for its upkeep.
In the 1970s, the Thompson family left a perpetual trust to care for the cemetery and the grounds.
A Nelson donated a quarter of farmland when he died. Revenue from its rent goes half to the upkeep of Trinity Lutheran and half to Oldham Lutheran.
The donations allowed for the pump organ to be restored and for the building to be electrified. Keeping the historic charm, the original gas light fixtures were converted to run on electricity.
“It’s pretty much unchanged since the 20s,” Abrahamson said.
When he thinks back on the church of his ancestors, he remembers how beautiful it is, and like others, he’s grateful for all of the work so many have put in to caring for it.
“That’s where your roots are,” Schlagel added.
If you have a suggestion for a rural church to feature here, contact editor Janelle Atyeo at 605-335-7300 or email email@example.com.