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A Church Bound in Prairie Armor Holds a Tragic Tale

James C. Schaap

The endless prairie all around is so bereft of people and buildings that coming up on St. Stephenie Scandinavian Church from any direction is a joy, even though the old church is but a shadow of its former self. It's hard to imagine the neighborhood teeming with Danes and Bohemians and Virginians, a Great Plains melting pot, each family--eleventy-seven kids--trying to make a go of it on 80 acres of lousy land. There had to be a time, maybe early June, when you could stand beside the old church and hear the music of children's voices rising from homesteads miles around.

Credit James C. Schaap

Worship’s been silenced long, long ago. What few ranchers remain on the land raise lots fewer children on tons more acres. But the Dane Church, as it’s called, stays where it’s been, suited up dutifully now against the elements, just across the road from its own cemetery. 

St. Stephenie’s was a Lutheran church, built on land owned by Yance Sorenson, whose big, square-shouldered grave stone stands right up front, biggest in the cemetery, closest to the road, so monumental that when I stepped out of the car and spotted that stone just across the gravel, I had the feeling I was being watched. I meant no harm, I told him.

Yance Sorenson insisted, even though he would be "AT REST" here, that the world remember that he was "Born in Norway," the stone says.

Way out in Willa Cather country, southern Nebraska, a stone’s throw from Kansas, is where this old church--or its predecessor—once played a role in Willa Cather’s famous prairie saga, My Antonia. 

The cemetery may well have been the one that refused burial to Antonia father's family when they asked if his body could be buried just beyond its gates. Tony’s father was Roman Catholic and he was Czech, not Danish and Lutheran; but Cather claims the man’s ethnic or religious origins were not at issue when the church refused the family’s request. 

In Willa Cather’s life, Mr. Shimerda's prototype, Francis Sadilek, who lived just up the road, shot himself 

Credit James C. Schaap
A “Cather Country” sign marks the place where Francis Sadilek was buried.

in his own barn. America didn't fulfill the wonders of its promises. In the old country, he'd been a weaver and a musician, not a farmer; but he’d believed that he could farm: you put seeds in the ground and then, when the harvest is ready, you take out food—you take out potatoes or carrots, and put up what's left of the bounty for winter. You chase chickens, milk a cow or two, get yourself a pair of good horses. Seemed a sure thing.

Didn’t work. A 134 years ago he took his own life and was buried on his own farm when the church turned the family down.

St. Stephenie’s refusal would not have been horrifying back then. Taking one’s life meant having fallen into a despair so hopeless people assumed its victims had abandoned faith in God altogether.  

Still, you can imagine the hurt at that decision.

Today, St. Stephenie’s Church is a storage shed.

Once upon a time St. Stephenie’s had windows and an altar, a baptismal font and a communion table, plus lectern or pulpit. With windows and a front door, years ago it must have seemed a place of hope and grace. For decades, its bell must have been heard for miles around. Once St. Stephenie’s Church created community—and broke it in pieces too. 

That it’s still there is a blessing. Even though it’s dressed these days in armor, it still has a story to tell, stories never to old to tell again.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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