Odalen church on fire June 21, 2007
The Odalen Church, outside Edinburg, North Dakota, June 21, 2007
Photo: David Monson

“By the time we got there, the fire was already in the attic. Then it got up into the steeple and that’s when we knew we lost it.”

Map of North Dakota with Edinburg

Chuck Kartes, chief of the Volunteer Fire Department in Edinburg, North Dakota, told how the Odalen Lutheran Church burned away. The alarm went out at 7:45 in the evening, Thursday, June 21. Lisa Gibson, writing for the Grand Forks Herald, reported, “17 firefighters stayed on scene until the church crumbled to the ground” three hours later. By dusk the first day of summer ““ the longest day of the year — it was gone.

The church, on the National Register of Historic Places, was the last public building in tiny Tiber Township. It was built in 1897 under another name — Odalen Lutherske Kirke — thirteen years after Norwegian immigrants who settled this part of Walsh County had formed a Lutheran congregation. Edinburg, pop 275, is the closest town, six miles east.

The pioneers named the church Odalen after their home in Eastern Norway and, some say, settled and sited the church here, where the Red River Valley meets the prairie in northeastern North Dakota, because the land looked like the old country. “It’s out of character for this part of North Dakota,” David Monson said of the surrounding land. Monson was raised in the Odalen parish. He and his wife Loretta live just across on the road and farmed here for more than thirty years. Much of North Dakota is treeless, Monson says, but in the vicinity of Odalen “There are wooded valleys” of oak and ash. “It’s right at the end of the coulee.” Around the church itself, he said, stand evergreens — spruce trees “planted from seed brought from Norway.”

Odalen church on the lake
“The church on the lake” in the fall of 2006

The building itself looks ““ looked — a lot like the Norwegian churches from this same time. Here’s the Ullern Church in Odalen, Hedmark County, Norway, built 29 years earlier — about when many of Walsh County’s settlers probably left Scandinavia.

Sunday services ended in June 2000 as the Odalen congregation had dwindled to 20…15…12. But there was an annual reunion and Lutheran church service each Memorial Day (the living may have moved off, but not the dead). David Monson said the most recent May gathering drew about 150 people, “almost a full church.” Just prior to the fire, there had been lots of activity. The church was being prepped for a fresh coat of paint, to look its best for Edinburg’s big 125th birthday celebration, (today through Sunday). Work had slowed after the crew came upon bees in the church wall, Monson said.

Norris Haug’s grandfather originally deeded the five acres for the church. Age 81, Mr. Haug remembers when Odalen’s services were conducted entirely in Norwegian. He said at Christmas time the parish children each came forward with a religious recitation: “Sometimes we’d do well. Sometime we wouldn’t do so well,” he chortled. “That was everybody’s first experience with getting up in public.” He along with a few others stood by helplessly on June 21. Stacey Sevigny wrote that Haug “had hoped the cast iron bell in the steeple would survive the fire, but when it fell from the steeple it broke into pieces.”

fire trucks at odalen church

Volunteer firefighters from Edinburg
on the scene at Odalen Church
June 21, 2007

The fire marshal inspected the site last week and ruled the fire accidental. So what now? Monson says everyone’s taking time to think that through. “We’ll do something to memorialize the founders, the members and the church itself, too,” he said. “We’ve spoken with people who have been through this before,” parishioners of the Thingvalla Lutheran Church nearby. Built by early Icelandic settlers, Thingvalla burned in 2003. “They’ve told us you’ll have all kinds of ideas, from rebuilding to planting grass over the site,” Monson said. Thingvalla’s members decided to leave the remains of their church foundation standing and planted wildflowers there.

Rita Mielke, who maintains Edinburg’s terrific website, wrote in her Crow’s Nest column, “Watching the fire evoked so many memories. I was baptized, confirmed and married there.” Mielke described “magical” Christmas gatherings: “We would get “˜Christmas’ candy with an apple in a brown paper bag….I also remember as a child the furnace heat would come up to the sanctuary through a large grate in the floor. How much fun it was to stand over it and have the hot air blowing around us.”

Mielke fondly remembered Memorial Days too, “a big event at Odalen since around 1925. I remember in my younger years having the church so full that chairs would be set up outside for the overflow….There would always be a speaker who would talk—-on and on and on—-in my childhood way of thinking. A huge lunch of potato salad, baked beans, Jell-O salad, homemade buns and dessert was always served. It was a “˜Lutheran Moment’ for sure!”

Odalen church basement Stephanie Walker

The church basement
hand-dug in 1916

for a community center

Photo: Stephanie Walker

Monson’s sunset pictures of the beautiful church gorged with fire are unreal. Especially alongside another set of pictures taken, with prescience, by Stephanie Walker last fall. Walker has Walsh County roots and drove up from Southern Minnesota to photograph nearby Park Center Lutheran Church, her family’s parish. Having noticed the old churches vanishing one by one, she decided to document as many of them in the region as she could. Her stunning album of 99 churches ““ including Odalen Lutheran, “located in such a pretty spot, by that pond” — is available on line.

Odalen church basement burned DAvid Monson

June 22, 2007

Photo: David Monson

“There are tons of empty houses and farms all over the place,” Walker writes. “The area by Edinburg/Park River/Hoople is still somewhat populated, but the western half of the county is pretty much vacant, which is why all these churches have to close. My grandma still attends Park Center in the summer and fall months (every other week). They vote every year whether to close or not and even though only about ten people are left, they still refuse to shut down.”

The Odalen congregation made a different choice back in 2000. “The church had served these people, well,” said David Monson. “And it’s not fair” to the clergy, he said, “to get people to serve” when the communicants were so few and funds so small. “Our pastor kind of gave us permission to close,” Monson said. So with reason and stoicism, the Odalen parishioners moved to Trinity Lutheran in Edinburg.

That’s where Sunday services will be July 8, culmination of Edinburg’s 125th anniversary celebration. The three day event includes the usual fare — a parade and rides, and two nights of dancing with music from bands “Hard Times” and “Free Beer.” But there are unusual plans, too ““ bagpipers, Native American dancers, a birding tour, and potato picking contest. At 4 pm on Saturday a “Burnout” is scheduled. (We’re not sure what that involves.)

We asked David Monson about the shape of things on the edge of the coulee, in his part of Walsh County. Was the community growing or, like so many spots on the Great Plains, shriveling away? The U.S. Census says that between 1990-2000, Walsh County lost 10% of its population, losing another 1000 residents (8% more) between 2000 and 2006.

odalen church altar painting
Odalen Lutheran Church’s altarpiece, fall 2006

Yet Monson sees something else. Dryland farmers shifting from wheat and barley to canola and sunflowers, a congregation that closed its doors but moved together six miles down the road, sixty neighbors (most with bad knees) building a sod house last year. Monson, who was steady enough to take these astonishing pictures as the center of his community collapsed two weeks ago, says about Edinburg, “It’s holding its own.” Lutheran moments abound.

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