Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The surprising connection between a Minnesota church and the James-Younger Gang July 21, 2010

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WHEN MY HUSBAND AND I EMBARKED on a quest for an old country church Sunday afternoon, we fully expected a challenge. But we didn’t expect to cross paths with a bunch of outlaws.

First, a little background: Several days earlier I had photographed a painting of an old Minnesota church done by our 92-year-old artist-friend, Rhody Yule, in 1969. Rhody remembered only that the church was “somewhere near Montgomery” and on the National Register of Historic Places.

I carried a photograph of this 1969 church painting by Faribault artist Rhody Yule as we set out to find the unidentified church.

With those clues, Randy and I set out on our adventure simply because we love the history and beauty of old country churches. We figured if we drove far enough and long enough, we would find this one.

So off we went, following Rice County Road 9 northwest of Faribault, driving around sweeping curves, up and down hills, past farm places, all the while searching for a steeple. I had no clue where we were, which I find unsettling. I like to know where I am and where I am going. But not the husband; he just kept driving.

Soon we approached a lake. Must be Circle Lake, we speculated. We were right. And then, just as we were about to turn onto a gravel road leading to the public access, I saw a white church high on a hill. “There’s a church!” I shouted. “I bet that’s it.”

Right then and there, I wanted to drive up to that church. But first things first. We had to stop at the lake. A quick stop and we were off to the church, which sits two miles west of Millersburg (not Montgomery) along Rice County Road 1 near its intersection with County Road 9.

Our excitement was palpable as we pulled off the road and parked below the church. I grabbed the picture and compared the painting to the building before me. It was a match. We had found Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church, built in 1878, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 and today preserved through the Christdala Church Presevation & Cemetery Association.

Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church sits atop a hill along Rice County Road 1 just west of Millersburg.

Some 25 steps later and we reached the top of the hill, standing before this simple country church overlooking Circle Lake.

An archway at the top of the church steps frames Circle Lake and the surrounding countryside. Christdala means "Christ's Valley."

Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church, built for $230 in 1878 by John Olson and John Lundberg of Northfield and site of a fall service and open house.

And that’s where we met Phil, who was photographing Christdala and old tombstones. “Can we get inside?” I ask, hopeful that perhaps this stranger has a key. “Are you from around here?”

No and no. Phil is from California, but is president of Le Center-based ShetkaStone, a company that makes tables, countertops, moldings, office furniture and more from recycled paper. When he’s in Minnesota (which is often), this Californian explores old country churches and cemeteries in the home-away-from-home state he has grown to love.  You don’t find this kind of history in California, he says.

We are kindred spirits—the three of us—standing here on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon admiring this 132-year-old church with an intriguing connection to the Sept. 7, 1876 robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield by the notorious James-Younger Gang.

Swedish immigrants built Christdala after one of their own, Nicolaus Gustafson, who had traveled to Northfield on the morning of the bank robbery, was fatally shot by Cole Younger. Because the Millersburg Swedish community had no church or cemetery, Gustafson was buried in Northfield. After his death, the Swedes immediately began formulating plans for their own church and burial place, forming a congregation in July 1877 and constructing a house of worship in 1878.

Today Christdala, which dissolved as a congregation in 1966 due to declining membership, stands as a strong testament to those determined Swedes. They turned the tragic death of their friend, their neighbor, into something positive. Good triumphs over evil. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this church was built beside, and above, the road used as an escape route by the notorious outlaws.

All of this I consider while walking among the tombstones—of the Youngquists, the Swansons, the Paulsons and, yes, even the Gustafsons.

A sign at the church details the historical connection to the 1876 Northfield bank raid by the James-Younger Gang.

A cemetery surrounds Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church near Millersburg.

An honorary star in the Christdala cemetery denotes a soldier as a veteran of the Indian War.

The exterior stained glass top of a Christdala window.

Because the church was locked, I had to settle for peering through the blinds at the altar, which sits in front of the pulpit. The cross rests on the altar. I'll have to return for the annual autumn worship service and open house.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling