Tragedy strikes Odalen, “the church by the lake”

The second pulpit call that my father received after his ordination was to the rural North Dakota town of Edinburg. There he was responsible for not one, but three congregations, one of which was Odalen Lutheran Church. The other two were Zion Lutheran Church and Trinity Lutheran Church. Trinity and Zion are still active congregations today.

The Edinburg Lutheran Parish parsonage, 1953.

I was only a few months old when we moved from Minneapolis to Edinburg in 1952. I have very few memories of those days and what I can recall is quite vague and hazy in my mind. But I’ve always had the sense that my dad found his work fresh and invigorating and my mom was challenged in her new role as the preacher’s wife, as well as being a brand new parent. I have no memory of the churches at all and just a few mental images of our home which pictures show to have been an enormous house for three people.

We lived in Edinburg for four years before moving back to Minnesota in 1956. During those North Dakota years, my sister, Elizabeth, was born and both sets of our grandparents visited several times. Edinburg was such a small town that it had no hospital, so Beth was delivered in the nearby town of Grafton, about 30 miles to the east.

Odalen Church was founded in 1882 and was located along the shore of a lake six miles west of Edinburg. Most of what I know about Odalen comes from a booklet that the congregation published in June of 1959 for the 75th anniversary celebration of the church. My dad traveled to Edinburg to take part in the services and I assume he went alone since our brother Paul was scarcely a month old at the time.

Dad was the 7th pastor to serve the congregation in its first 75 years. The commemorative booklet says this about his time in Edinburg, “The Lord’s Acre Plan was organized during the ministry of Rev. Bergeson. The Lord’s Acre Plan has now functioned in the congregation for six years and has been a blessing in the work of the church as well as for the various missions in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.”

Rev. Bergeson during fall harvest, 1953

I hadn’t heard of “The Lord’s Acre Plan” before, but I now know that it was program begun in Georgia in 1930 that rural churches across the country have used to raise money for their work. Farmers give the proceeds from crop sales on one dedicated acre of their land to the church. There is a photograph of my dad standing in a farm field at harvest time taken during the North Dakota years that has always puzzled me. It’s possible that he was standing on one of the Lord’s Edinburg acres!

Our time in North Dakota was brief, but Odalen Church lived on for another 41 years. While I was doing research for this post, I came across a blog called The Daily Yonder: Keep it Rural and learned that the Odalen story has a dramatic and sad ending. By the year 2000, the congregation had dwindled to the point where it became prudent to cease activities at that location and merge with Trinity Lutheran Church in town. Since that time, the church building has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the last surviving community building in Tiber Township. Annual reunions have been held there each Memorial Day, drawing as many as 150 friends and former members to worship and share a meal together.

As the community was preparing for Odalen’s 125th anniversary in June 2007, fire broke out early on Thursday evening, June 21st. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was already in the attic. Three hours later there was nothing left. The amazing photograph at the top of this post was taken by David Monson, a farmer who lives across the road from the church. Julie Ardery’s account of the fire in The Daily Yonder is well worth a look as well.

My dad never learned about the tragic demise of Odalen Lutheran Church. Ironically, he passed away just six months earlier in December 2006. I’m glad he always knew it as it looked in the photograph below taken by his father on a visit in 1953.

Odalen Lutherske Kirke, built in 1897. Photo taken in 1953 by Ragnvald Bergeson.

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