Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part I: St. Michael’s in Buckman, place of faith, art & memories January 26, 2021

IMAGINE, AS A YOUNG BOY, moving nearly 400 miles across the plains of North Dakota east to Minnesota with your family to start a new life. You’ve left behind your grandparents and other extended family, and the comforting familiarity of farm home, church and school. For my husband, that was reality.

St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

As the Tom and Betty Helbling family settled onto a farm southeast of Buckman in central Minnesota in the early 1960s, Randy found himself adjusting from a one-room country schoolhouse with one teacher to a parochial school with multiple classrooms and teachers. He no longer faced cancellation of recess due to coyotes circling the playground at Chimney Butte School near St. Anthony. Rather, he faced nuns slapping his hands with a ruler or drilling thumbs into his skull, adding to his angst as the new boy in school. And then there was the matter of the frightening statue across the street inside the massive St. Michael’s Catholic Church.

In the center, St. Michael overpowering Satan. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Some six months ago, I heard for the first time about Randy’s boyhood fear of the statue which centers the main altar at St. Michael’s, where he attended weekday and Sunday Mass. The statue features a triumphant St. Michael overpowering Satan with a spear. A horrid, crouching other-worldly creature with an open mouth of sharp teeth and equally sharp claws represents Satan. Enough to scare any child looking over adult heads to that altar art. Not even the chain and weapon would be enough to inspire confidence in the Evil One’s captivity.

St. Michael’s stretches long and high. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

All of that aside, St. Michael’s is a truly beautiful church. Massive in size and vast in art. I’ve come to know it only through marriage as I grew up 145 miles to the south of Buckman and in the Lutheran faith.

“The Nativity” stained glass, one of many similar windows inside St. Michael’s. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
A stunningly beautiful cross, one of many. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
Statues on a side altar. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

I don’t pretend to understand the meaning of all the art which graces this space. But one thing I do understand is that this house of worship excels in craftsmanship and artistry. Each piece of art holds meaning, significance, purpose. From the stained glass windows to the sculptures to the ornate altars.

Looking toward the back of the church and to the balcony. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Years have passed since I stepped inside St. Michael’s. So when Randy and I visited his mother’s and brother’s gravesites at the church cemetery last September, we decided to also check out the recently-restored church. I expected locked doors, so often the case now in rural and small town churches. But the doors to an addition were open and we had the place to ourselves. Note that plenty of security cameras film visitors.

My favorite art in St. Michael’s are these angels painted on the ceiling above the altar. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

My reaction was one of awe as I stood inside the sanctuary with its soaring ceiling, art seemingly everywhere. It’s a photographer’s paradise. An art lover’s dream. A place of peace for the faithful.

A side altar up close. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
Ornate ceiling details. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
One of many detailed sculptures. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

I felt overwhelmed as I moved from one area of the church to the next—attempting to take in all I saw. The whole picture. The details. Oh, the details.

The center altar, with that frightening statue. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

I stood for a moment, placing myself in Randy’s shoes as that young boy from North Dakota seeing this all for the first time. I locked eyes on the statue of St. Michael towering over Satan, the terrible, horrible creature with the sharp teeth and claws. And I understood Randy’s fear manifested there all those decades ago.

Please check back as I bring you more photos from inside St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


18 Responses to “Part I: St. Michael’s in Buckman, place of faith, art & memories”

  1. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing, Audrey! ❤

  2. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    WOW, this is an amazing church, I loved looking at all the details in your photo’s. What a Plus for you to find and open door, We both share a giddiness to open church doors. The creature (satan) is horrifying even to an adult

  3. Joyce F Says:

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing. Modern Catholic churches don’t seem to be as awe-inspiring.

    • I think you’re correct that churches in general are not nearly as awe-inspiring. But then I think about how much it would cost to build a church like St. Michael’s today and I expect that’s part of the reason new churches are much simpler.

  4. Larry g Says:

    One of the things the Catholic Church has always excelled at was church art sculpture, stained glass etc. when I went to school we attended mass every day. When I wasn’t serving mass I spent hours staring at the art. It was designed to make one feel small. To direct one’s eye upward. Nice job of capturing that.

  5. BERNADETTE Thomasy Says:

    Agree, it is amazing to think how much a parish community would spend to have such beautiful artwork in their church, but the Catholic church has used art as a visual faith teacher for centuries, when most of the population could not read and the Mass was not in their native language. The tradition has continued but not so elaborately today, as one person commented. I’m sorry that Randy has bad memories, but I must say my sisters and I attended Catholic schools around the same time and found none of the physical punishment mentioned. This type of behavior could also have occurred in public schools at the time, but it seems nuns are often singled out and a stereotype perpetuated. Unfortunately, authority can go to some people’s heads and lead to misuse. A nun, like any teacher, is human. Looking forward to more pictures from St. Michael’s.

    • Bernadette, thank you for your insights on art as a visual faith teacher. I touch on that in my post tomorrow.

      You’re right about physical punishment. It truly was a different time with different attitudes and could happen in public schools, too. Randy also has good memories of St. Michael’s.


    What a lovely church! I grew up at Our Lady of Victory Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. (95% of my friends and family were Lutheran, including my dad!)

  7. valeriebollinger Says:

    What an interesting sculpture of with the angel’s spear through “satan”. Very scary.
    Otherwise it looks like a lovely church. Thanks for the photo tour.

  8. Missy’s Crafty Mess Says:

    Wow what huge changes for a young child. I love how beautiful the artwork is in this church and yet nothing like a Lutheran church

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