Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Visit Christdala Church for worship, art and a history tied to outlaws September 25, 2010

Steps lead from Rice County Road 1 to Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church.

I DOUBT ANY OTHER MINNESOTA church can claim roots in a notorious attempted bank robbery. But Christdala Evangelical Swedish Lutheran Church of rural Millersburg can.

The long-dissolved congregation traces its origins back to the September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank in nearby Northfield. During that failed crime, Nicolaus Gustafson, a Swedish immigrant from Millersburg, was shot point blank in the head by outlaw Cole Younger. He died four days later and was buried in Northfield because the Millersburg Swedish community didn’t have a graveyard, or a church.

The evening of the bank robbery, the Swedish immigrants met to talk about constructing a church and soon thereafter built Christdala.

This Sunday, September 26, the Christdala Church Preservation and Cemetery Association will open the doors to this historic church which sits high atop a hill overlooking Circle Lake just west of Millersburg along Rice County Road 1. On this roadway that passes by the 1878 country church, the James-Younger Gang fled after the botched Northfield raid.

The doors to Christdala, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I’ll be there Sunday for the 2 p.m. fall worship service led by the Rev. Ralph Baumgartner, pastor of Galilee Evangelical Lutheran Church in Roseville, who has family ties to Christdala. I’m anxious to get inside this sanctuary, which I’ve only viewed through the slats of Venetian blinds while photographing the locked building on a Sunday afternoon in July.

I've only peered through the blinds into the sanctuary.

This Sunday I’ll arrive well before worshipers and the curious and the families with a connection to Christdala. I’ll arrive with a van full of paintings by my 92-year-old artist friend, Rhody Yule of Faribault. Rhody, who has been creating art for 76 years, did an oil painting of the church in 1969. He’s showing that piece and eight other religious-themed works at Christdala’s open house.

He’ll talk a bit. I’ll talk a bit. But mostly, we welcome visitors to pause and study the paintings, to feel the emotions painted into the faces of the disciples, of Christ, of a woman in reverent prayer. Rhody paints with a heart of faith reflected in his art.

Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church painted in 1969 by Rhody Yule.

A snippet of Rhody Yule's painting, one of nine he will show at Christdala.

Christdala visitors can also pick up a copy of God’s Angry Man—The Incredible Journey of Private Joe Haan by B.Wayne Quist. The newly-released book tells the true, powerful life story of Haan (Quist’s uncle), who grew up in an Owatonna orphanage and who served in Patton’s Third Army during WW II. Quist, a member of the Christdala Preservation Association, will donate profits from Sunday’s book sales to Christdala.

Copies of the fall issue of Minnesota Moments magazine, featuring my photo essay on country churches, will also be on sale with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the church.

B. Wayne Quist will sell copies of his latest book, God's Angry Man.

Before and after the worship service, visitors can tour the 1881 Millersburg School, which the Christdala preservation group has refurbished and is transitioning into a community museum. Exhibits include church and school records, photos, military medals and records, Indian artifacts, an old doctor’s buggy and more. Faribault genealogist and preservation member John Dalby will be at the schoolhouse to answer questions.

The Millersburg School has been refurbished and will feature exhibits tied to local history.

Sunday promises to be an interesting day for those who gather at Christdala. It will be a day of history and of art, of worship, of thoughtful remembrances at gravesites, of families reuniting and of others simply coming together on this spot, this Christdala, this “Christ’s Valley,” here where the outlaws once escaped on their galloping horses.

A side view of the 1878 Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book cover image courtesy of B. Wayne Quist and schoolhouse image courtesy of John Dalby.

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