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The Old Danish Church

The Old Danish Church
James C. Schaap
The Old Danish Church

There ought to be a turnout. There ought to be a sign a mile back--you know, "Scenic Overlook" or something akin, a warning to drivers who come up from Moorhead on County Road E54 that there's a scene coming that looks more like a calendar than a church.

If the traffic was any busier, there'd be accidents galore right there at the Old Danish Church. You will take your eyes off the road. Don’t. Just stop the car. You can't help but expect men in vests and women in long dresses to step out of the front door for a potluck. Kids tear around, playing leap frog over the cemetery stones. Women gather. Men smoke fat, black cigars.

Did I mention the graveyard? It spreads out over the hill, out front of the old church, manicured so nicely that even the bushes are restrained. The whole scene is perfectly bucolic--darling-ly 19th century Americana.

And it is. Then again, it's not. The Old Danish Church is old and ethnically Danish; but that name derives from a bloody fight few remember--or wish to, a fight that began in the old country, but was carried along over the ocean blue, a familiar battle between those determined to toe the line and those who want to finally get over to the other side.

If you can believe it, once there were two churches here: "the high church," sitting atop the bluff behind the one we're looking at, and this one, "the low church," both of them both old and Danish, and each as bull-headed as the other. Religious fights are never all bucolic. Typical better describes.

Still, the Old Danish Church is beautiful.

One stone in the cemetery lists the names of eight children buried beneath, a mass grave that commemorates the Johnson kids, who died in a wave of diphtheria.

The gravesite of the Johnson children at the Old Danish Church
James C. Schaap
The gravesite of the Johnson children at the Old Danish Church

Peter and Mary Johnson were married here in 1879. They lived in a log cabin up on the hill above the Old Church. Tragedy struck when their daughter Maggie died, scalded in an accident.

Then came diphtheria. No phones, of course, and people practiced strict quarantining measures to stifle the outbreak. When seven Johnson children fell into sickness and, one by one, succumbed to the killer, Father Johnson would ride his horse up on the hill above the church to signal to relatives building a barn down below that yet another child was gone. The relatives would build yet another casket and dig a wider grave.

Mother Johnson, in the Old Danish Church, sang a hymn for each of her children, a testimony to the depth of her faith. But with the seventh--or so the story goes--the music would no longer come.

No one worships at the Old Danish Church anymore, but once a year around Memorial Day people gather to remember the place and the stories. It might interest you to know that Memorial Day is chosen not because of the holiday, but because of a very special moment in the old church's history.

After the internal strife, "the high church" fell into disrepair and eventually disappeared. Then, in a series of mergers within the Lutheran family, "the high church" people--some anyway--moved back to "the low church," the one along the road, bringing their fervent arguments to an end. There’s the name—the Old Danish Church.

Listen, if you're in the Loess Hills sometime, and you're coming up from Moorhead along E54, let me warn you. Don't be surprised if the car in front of you suddenly veers off the highway and someone jumps out with a phone to snap a picture. Just pull up behind them and take your turn.

Honestly, there ought to be a turnout right there because the Old Danish Church is bucolic, all right; it’s just plain beautiful. If it isn’t already, it ought to be on a calendar.

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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