Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In loving memory of my father-in-law February 9, 2021

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Tom and Betty Helbling, photographed in 1988.

HE DIED PEACEFULLY Friday morning, two of his daughters by his side.

He is my father-in-law, Tom. Age 90. His death came quickly after a short hospitalization, discharge, sudden change in health, admittance to hospice, then gone the next day.

Mass of Christian burial for my father-in-law will be celebrated in St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman.

Now we are preparing to say goodbye in the deep of a brutally cold stretch of weather here in Minnesota in the midst of a global pandemic. Both add to the challenges.

Today, though, I want to focus on Tom and my memories of the man I’ve known for nearly 40 years. A man with a large and loving family, whom he loved, even if he didn’t often openly show it.

Tom and Betty Helbling, circa early 1950s.

Tom has always been surrounded by a large family, beginning with his birth into a blended family in rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in December 1930. After farming on the Helbling homestead, Tom and his wife, Betty, moved in 1963 with their young children to a central Minnesota farm. Their family grew to nine children, 18 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.

As a young child, Tom briefly attended Catholic boarding school, which leads to one of my favorite stories about him. Apparently oatmeal was often served for breakfast. And Tom disliked oatmeal. One morning he stuffed the cooked grain in his pocket rather than eat it, so the story goes. I expect it wasn’t long before the nuns discovered the oatmeal mess and meted out punishment.

Yes, Tom could be particular about the foods he ate. He liked, in my opinion, the strangest foods—Braunschweiger, summer sausage, pickled beets, herring… And, yes, his son, my husband Randy, also likes herring. Shortly before his health declined, Tom enjoyed a few of those favorites delivered to his care center room by a daughter.

Ripened corn field. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Visitor restrictions due to COVID-19 were hard on Tom, as they have been for most living in congregate care centers and their families. But my father-in-law has overcome much in his life, most notably the loss of his left hand and forearm following an October 1967 farming accident. The accident happened when Tom hopped off the tractor to hand-feed corn into a plugged corn chopper. The rollers sliced off his fingers and pulled in his hand, trapping it. As Tom screamed for help, Randy, only 11 years old, disengaged the power take-off, then raced across fields and swampland to a neighbor’s farm. It’s a harrowing story that could have easily turned tragic.

My father-in-law’s prosthetic hand. Tom put a band-aid on his hand after he burned a hole in it while frying potatoes in 2009. I laughed so hard. Prior to getting his hand, Tom wore a hook to replace his amputated limb. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Despite a missing limb, Tom managed to continue milking cows and, in later years, to run a small engine repair business. He also grew and sold strawberries and pumpkins. I remember harvesting pumpkins with him one cold October evening, rain slicking the field with mud. We were drenched and miserable by the time we’d plucked those pumpkins.

One of my favorite photos of Tom giving an impromptu concert on his Lowrey organ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

It is the creative side of Tom which I especially appreciated. He was a multi-talented life-long musician who played the piano, organ and accordion (until he lost his hand). He could play music by ear and had a piano tuning business. At age 81, he took refresher organ lessons and in 2012 gave an impromptu concert for Randy and me in the small St. Cloud apartment he shared with his second wife, Janice. His first wife, Betty, died in 1993. He treated us to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Somewhere My Love” from the movie Dr. Zhivago. What a gift to us.

Threshing on the home place in North Dakota, a painting by my father-in-law, Tom Helbling.

Tom also painted, a hobby he took up late in life. Randy and I have two of his original oil paintings and several prints. They are a reminder of my father-in-law, of his history, of his rural upbringing, of his creative side. I consider these a legacy gift. Valued now more than ever at his passing.


© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Joy on a Friday in February February 5, 2021

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2014.

HOW ARE YOU, dear friends? I don’t ask that question without expecting an honest answer.

Perhaps you’ve had a really difficult week. Like me. One filled with concern for those you love. One of endless texts and emails among family. Worry. Awake too early. Feeling stressed.

Or maybe everything is going great. And that’s good. Life is a mix of rainy days and sunny days. Or if I put that in the context of winter in Minnesota, days with snow and days without snow. Days when temps are well above zero and days when they are unbelievably cold. Like the weather predicted for the next week.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2014.

But let’s put all that aside right now and focus on flowers. Yes, flowers. When I awakened too early the other morning and couldn’t fall asleep again with pain pressing upon my head, neck and shoulders, I prayed. And then I pictured flowers. These flowers. Aren’t they lovely?

While scrolling through blog posts earlier this week, I found these images of a floral bouquet Randy gave me in February 2014, six days before Valentine’s Day. The photos brought back sweet memories and made me happy.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2014.

And happy is good. Even in difficult days that challenge us, there are ways to find joy. And today my joy comes in remembering the gift of these flowers, how they popped color into a February day and lifted my spirits seven years ago. And now again, today.

TELL ME: What brings you joy today?

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Love in the Prairie, Blooming Prairie February 4, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. Little Town on the Prairie. Both are familiar to fans of author Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote books by those titles. But what about Love in the Prairie? Ah, not so familiar.

So what exactly is Love in the Prairie? It is a Valentine’s Day-themed space created in the small southeastern Minnesota community of Blooming Prairie, home to the Awesome Blossoms. For real.

You’ll find Love in the Prairie outside B to Z Hardware Store. An oversized Sweethearts candy box. A Prison of Love. Spots to cuddle with your sweetheart on a sofa or bench. A kissing booth. Photo cut-outs to pretend you are Danny or Sandy from the musical Grease. Lots and lots of fun photo ops.

I’ve not been there. But I’ve viewed images posted on Facebook. Click here to see for yourself. I love what I see in this community south of Owatonna.

Isn’t this brilliant? I love the creativity, the joy, the smiles this brings in a time when we need happiness. And love. More than ever.

It’s a great way, too, for a small town hardware store to market itself, to draw customers—you’ll find candy and other Valentine’s Day merchandise inside.

To the creatives behind Love in the Prairie, thank you.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter walk: Of woods & river & hungry ducks February 3, 2021

I WAS DETERMINED this past Sunday to get out of Dodge. I needed a change of place, something new to photograph. So I decided we’d head about 20 minutes south on Interstate 35 to check out the snow sculptures at Owatonna’s Bold & Cold Winter Festival.

Well, we never got there. Suffice to say the best-laid plans were thwarted by developing health situations with our parents. Our phones were blowing up on Sunday. And I’d lost my desire to leave Faribault. I’d been awake since 4:55 a.m. and, come afternoon, my energy level plummeted. Randy suggested I nap for a bit. I tried.

The trail we walked edges the Straight River.

Then, about mid-afternoon, I declared myself weary of everything and ready for a walk. I pulled on a warm parka, laced my snow boots, grabbed a stocking cap and mittens, switched out the lens on my camera and headed out the door. Destination: A Faribault city trail that runs parallel to Central Avenue and along the Straight River.

Branches overhang the Straight River.

As Randy and I walked, I felt my mood shifting away from worry about loved ones to the natural world around me. Bare trees rising above the snow. Others leaning or broken. Black against white.

The river curves through the woods.

The river, edged with ice, curving through the woods. Poetic. Artsy. Mostly monochromatic.

The wind chimes that created such beautiful music.

I paused at the sound of music, church bells, I thought. Randy pointed to chimes dangling above a balcony at a trail-side apartment building.

Photographed on the Cannon River at North Alexander Park. Randy claimed the bird followed us from the other trail we walked. Photo was edited.

We listened, too, to the manic caw of crows circling nearby. I felt like I was in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I thought I saw an eagle through the distant treetops, but then never spotted it again.

This limestone building along the Straight River Trail caused me to pause. I need to research its history. Watch for a future post with more images.

A bit farther down the path, we paused to consider an aged limestone building. Abandoned. I wondered aloud at its purpose. And the part of me that appreciates such historic structures lamented its neglect.

Art on ice.

I noted the abundance of animal tracks in the snow. And human tracks and sled imprints on the hillside.

When the cellphone in my parka pocket jingled, I ignored it.

The first two ducks to land near us along the shore of the Cannon River. Edited photo.

When we’d walked a distance, we retraced our steps, took a short cut up the sledding hill and then aimed to another city trail, this one along the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. There, masses of ducks flew close to shore near our parking spot. They just kept coming and I couldn’t figure out why.

The ducks just kept coming, landing on the frozen river. Edited photo.

Randy looked at the paved pathway to traces of smashed bread. Ah, the ducks thought we brought food. We laughed about that and considered that maybe, while we continued our walk, they would swarm our van and leave droppings.

The ducks hung around until we distanced ourselves from them and they determined we weren’t feeding them. Edited photo.

I quickened my pace, anxious to flee the flock of hungry ducks. A few minutes later, we watched them take flight away from the frozen shoreline and land in open water.

One of the many picnic shelters in North Alexander Park, where picnic tables are stacked in the winter to protect them from the weather.

We continued through the park, passing picnic shelters packed with stacked picnic tables. Past lone grills enveloped in snow. Past the colorful playground absent of children. And past the vacant ball fields.

Posted on a softball diamond fence at the park.

The wind cut cold through our bones as we turned onto the park road that would take us back to our van. I felt refreshed, my mind cleared, my spirits buoyed by the simple act of getting outdoors. Away from challenges and concerns. For at least an hour.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“The Great Invader,” neither fable nor fairy tale February 2, 2021

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Edited painting by Ruby from the 2018 student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

ONCE UPON A TIME, in The Land of Plenty…

Ah, a fairy tale, you say. Not exactly. Rather, this is a story rooted in reality. A story with a main character who, for ease of writing, shall be identified in secondary references as “he.” Not that The Great Invader is male.

So let’s dive into the story. Once upon a time in The Land of Plenty, The Great Invader landed, making himself comfortably at home. He was, by nature, a traveler. But he wasn’t the type of guest you’d knowingly invite into your home. You know the kind. Ungrateful. Demanding. Messy. And mean, just plain mean. Because of those undesirable traits, he soon found himself on the road, hopping from place to place under a guise of masterful deception. West Coast to East Coast. Then to the South and Up North and to the Midwest. He wanted, above all, to avoid detection and negative publicity.

But word soon got out about The Great Invader. Scientists found him especially fascinating. The more they studied the strange-looking traveler with his signature spiky hair, the more alarmed they grew. They realized he was much more than he appeared. Dangerous. He left a path of death and destruction wherever he went. Yes, that’s a cliché. But it fits.

The scientists warned about the intruder and suggested ways to deal with him. By then they’d studied him in their labs and determined that he traveled mostly by air. No ticket required. “Wear masks,” public health officials who collaborated with the scientists, advised. “Distance yourself from others. Avoid crowds. If you’re sick or feel like you’re coming down with something, stay home.” All of those tactics would discourage The Great Invader. But these proactive protocols were especially difficult for some people in The Land of Plenty to hear, let alone follow. They didn’t like anyone telling them what to do.

The Great Invader was acutely aware of these efforts to stop his adventures. He also recognized the discontent and division spreading across the land like a California wildfire. He needed a plan. And he didn’t have to think too hard. He’d simply rely on people who doubted scientists, who took little stock in warnings from health officials, who spread false information, especially via social media. People who could be a voice. He didn’t much care if that voice was loud or insidiously quiet.

As the months passed, The Great Invader found his hands-off strategy working quite well. He traveled to nearly every corner of The Land of Plenty. Even to the smallest village, where the villagers never dreamed he would visit and leave his imprint. “Why would The Great Invader come here? We have no great theaters or art museums or sports arenas or five-star restaurants or any major tourist attractions,” the villagers reasoned. So many went on with life as usual. Yet, an undercurrent of concern began to bubble when evidence of The Great Invader’s presence surfaced in the remotest of villages.

Meanwhile, across The Land of Plenty, scientists, health and government officials, and even journalists, were tracking The Great Invader on his journey around the country. And the world. They soon discovered they were no longer dealing with a sole sojourner, but rather many with magical powers. The spiky haired traveler had reproduced millions, if not billions, of times and created new versions of himself. This frightened the scientists, who by then had called upon experts to develop a battle plan. They needed to stop the traveler as he asserted his deadly powers. So researchers created a powerful potion to protect the people.

Soon squabbles arose as to who would get the potion first. The Great Invader laughed. He thrived on chaos, confusion and discontent. And lies. He admired selfishness.

He also secretly applauded those who defied common sense and science. He reveled, especially, in those in The Land of Plenty who refused to wear face masks. He celebrated every single person who wore their masks below their noses. And he saw plenty of those, whom he considered valued allies. The mask-less and the half-maskers allowed The Great Invader to travel with ease. If he found himself temporarily removed from a region, he just moved on for a while, only to return when people thought he’d permanently left.

And so, while the people of the land claimed all sorts of indignities brought on by The Great Invader and even tried to stop distribution of the powerful potion, he continued mapping his routes, plotting strategies and documenting his travels in his Once Upon a Time journal.

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NOTE: In every story there are truths, this one no exception. To all who have encountered The Great Invader/COVID-19 at his worst, I am sorry.

Observations in my community of Faribault sparked the idea for this story. As COVID-19 infections and deaths rise in Rice County, I see too many individuals in public who are wearing masks below their noses and/or mouths or not masking at all. I am beyond frustrated. We’re not talking just a few people. While I shopped at a local big box retailer, a smaller discount store and grocery stores recently, I saw perhaps 30 individuals who were half-maskers, plus a mask-less couple and children old enough to wear masks (but who were unmasked). Employees were among those half-maskers. I implore the people of Faribault to, please, just wear a tight-fitting, multi-layered mask, and wear it over your mouth AND nose. It’s not that difficult.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

For the love of ice skating in Minnesota February 1, 2021

This mural of “Ice Skating on the Straight River” graces the side of 10,000 Drops in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

WAY BACK IN THE DAY, in the exuberant days of my youth, when I truly enjoyed winter, I loved to ice skate. I wore my Aunt Dorothy’s white figure skates, passed along to me. I was happy to have them.

And I was happy to find a patch of ice upon which to skate in my hometown of Vesta. Near the grain elevator. Nothing fancy. Just an open space flooded in the winter for skating.

Now my hometown is looking to offer youth more than simply a patch of ice. Local resident Jacob Kolander has started a gofundme page to raise $6,000 for a Community Outdoor Hockey Skating Rink. His goal is to erect boards and an entry gate around a rink to provide a safe place for kids to skate. So far, he’s raised $950. If you’re interested in contributing to the cause, click here.

Up in Warroad, in the northwest section of Minnesota right next to Canada, locals have created a 2.5-mile Riverbend Skate Path which has grabbed lots of media attention. It started with two families wanting to connect their ice rinks. Yes, hockey/skating is big in this part of Minnesota. Well, that initial connection expanded to include five more rinks linked via the Warroad River. And now locals are clearing and grooming the ice and looking to buy a Zamboni. Various fundraisers, like concession stands along the skating path, are aiming to generate the needed funds.

Much farther to the south in the small town of Pierz, the local library also embraces skating via lending out ice skates for a week at a time. Varied sizes, from kids to adult, are available for check out. I love this idea—just in case there are kids without an Aunt Dorothy.

TELL ME: Have you ice skated? Let’s hear your skating experiences.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Minnesota: Reflecting on small towns January 29, 2021

Buckman, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

RURAL MINNESOTA. For Randy and me, that represents our upbringing, the place of our roots, the land that is part of our personal geography.

A road grader grades the gravel road near Randy’s childhood farm southeast of Buckman. We pulled off the narrow road to allow the grader to safely pass by our van. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
A farm place between Buckman and Gilman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
In the small town of Gilman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

We both grew up on farms, in large families—his three kids larger than mine at nine. We both picked rock—he more than me as Morrison County in central Minnesota sprouts more rocks than Redwood County. We each labored in fields and barns and understood the value of hard work and our importance in the farming operation. Even at a young age. That carries through in our strong work ethics and our strong link to the land.

Pierz, a small town to the north of Buckman and bigger than Buckman, still has a hardware store. Randy attended junior and senior high school in Pierz. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
As we passed through Pierz, I photographed this updated community gathering spot. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
Genola, just to the south of Pierz, is home to the Red Rooster. BINGO is big in this part of rural Minnesota as is weekly Bologna Day (as noted in the banner on the building). Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

And, though we left our rural communities at age 17, we still hold dear the small towns—Buckman and Vesta—that were such an important part of our upbringing. Both have changed with familiar businesses long gone. Society changed and locals began driving farther for groceries and other necessities.

A nod to this area’s rich agricultural base outside Sev’s Food & Liquor in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

It’s easy to get caught in the memories, of the back then, of wishing nothing had changed. But it has and it does. And life goes on.

Housed in the old bank building, the Buckman Bank Tavern. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
Signs on Sev’s in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
Sev’s Food & Liquor along Buckman’s main street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Returning to our hometowns, our home areas, causes me to reflect while simultaneously appreciating that which remains. Cafes and churches and hardware stores. Post offices and bars and grain elevators. These are the community gathering spots that still mark many of Minnesota’s smallest communities, those towns that span only blocks from east to west, north to south.

I often see can collection sites in small towns, like this one in Buckman. They offer insights into a community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
On the door of a Buckman bar, a young man remembered. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
A warning sign posted on a house in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

But more than buildings, people form community. Even in Faribault, where Randy and I have lived since 1982, we’ve found our small town in a city of around 25,000. That’s in our faith family at Trinity Lutheran Church, the “town” that centers our lives. An uncle and I discussed this recently. He lives in Minneapolis. His neighborhood is his community, his small town.

A place to gather outside Sev’s Food & Liquor in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

No matter where you live, whether in rural Minnesota or New York City, the mountains of Idaho or the plains of Nebraska, I hope you’ve found your community and place of joy.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III: St. Michael’s, beyond a building January 28, 2021

Outside my husband Randy’s home church, St. Michael’s in Buckman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

FOR MANY, THE WORD “church” prompts visions of a physical structure, a place where people of faith gather to worship. Certainly, that’s part of the definition. But, even more important, “church” is the people. That’s why, in times of natural disaster or fire or whatever may render a physical building unusable, the “church” continues.

This sign marks a back pew. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

For 118 years, the faithful have gathered at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman. Even during COVID-19, Mass happens three mornings a week. On the September weekday Randy and I visited, not a soul was around, giving us ample opportunity to explore this beautiful aged sanctuary.

Book of the Innocents photographed at St. Michael’s. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Despite the absence of people, I experienced the presence of those who call St. Michael’s their church home. I saw the human spiritual connection in handwritten prayers recorded in The Book of Innocents.

They left their mark… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Upstairs, atop the balcony wall ledge, I noticed initials, names and dates etched in wood. Another human notation, albeit probably not appreciated by all. But the scratchings are part of St. Michael’s history.

A view from the balcony. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
Stained glass windows abound, this one next to a side altar. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
The beautiful side altar. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

As I looked down upon the massive sanctuary defined by stained glass, sculptures, woodcarvings, paintings and other impressive art, I considered the humanity of this place. Baptisms. First Communions. Weddings. Funerals. Events—joyful and sad—which brought/bring people together to celebrate or to mourn. Mass, too, with singing and praying and forgiving and worshiping and growing in faith.

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

Generations have gathered here, within these walls, as a faith family.

This stunning cross stands in the center of the main altar. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

I’ve found comfort and joy here, too, celebrating the marriage of my father-in-law and a sister-in-law and grieving the loss of a brother-in-law and then my mother-in-law 27 years ago. Since then, the church has been restored and a side entry and fellowship hall added, making the building much more accessible.

Spotted on a table in the entry. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

In the new entry, I paused to read a small sign: PRAYER THE WORLD’S GREATEST WIRELESS CONNECTION. I laughed and thought, so true while simultaneously considering how much the world has changed since the construction of this church in 1903.

Masks are available for worshipers inside the entry. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Yet, little has changed. People still define St. Michael’s. They gather here—as they have for generations—within this art rich sanctuary, embracing liturgy steeped in music and tradition, to worship God. And to connect, heart-to-heart, with one another and with their Savior. Even during a global pandemic.

This is the final post in my three-part series on St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II: The artistry of St. Michael’s in Buckman January 27, 2021

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

WHEN I STEP INSIDE A CHURCH like St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman in central Minnesota, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer artistic beauty and craftsmanship. I wonder about those who built this massive church in 1903, dedicating it on September 29, St. Michael’s Day. How did they manage to build this 118 years ago without modern equipment? That amazes me.

Looking toward the front of St. Michael’s. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Beyond the actual structure, which surely took much muscle, many manpower hours and grit to complete, I wonder about the artists behind the artwork inside. Who crafted the stained glass windows? Who built the altars? Who shaped the statues and painted the angels and built the pews?

A stained glass depiction of Jesus carrying his cross. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
One of the side altars, right, at St. Michael’s. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.
The Nativity represented in stained glass, left. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

I am grateful to those faith-focused artists and craftsman who created such beauty here in the middle of Minnesota. A place for farm families (mostly) to gather for Mass. To praise God. To confess their sins. To press their hearts in prayer. To mourn. To celebrate. To grow deeper in their faith.

The Last Supper is depicted on the lower part of the main altar. Simply stunning. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

The Helbling family made St. Michael’s their church home upon relocating to Minnesota from North Dakota in 1963. My husband, Randy, and his siblings attended elementary school across the street. That school, next to the cemetery, is long gone. My mother-in-law and a brother-in-law are buried here, across Minnesota Highway 25 from the church. So, by marriage, St. Michael’s is now part of my history.

Just look at the emotions sculpted into this art. I see peace, pain, determination… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Certainly, I don’t hold the deep emotional connection that comes from years of worshiping within the walls of this rural Minnesota church. But I still hold a deep appreciation for this place which was such a valued part of my in-laws’ lives.

Stained glass windows and sculptures adorn the side walls of St. Michael’s. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

As a woman of faith—I grew up Lutheran—I value aged churches and art. Religious art is often symbolic, reinforcing Bible truths and stories. It can uplift, comfort, provide peace, bring joy, remind us of our weaknesses and the source of strength and hope. It can center and ground us when we most need to feel centered and grounded.

Massive pipes on the pipe organ in the St. Michael’s balcony. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Many times, church art has reinforced my faith, helped me to feel the presence and closeness of God whether in a stained glass window, the words of a familiar hymn or the comfort of a worn wooden pew.

“Pilate condemns Jesus to death” sculpture between two stained glass windows. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Inside St. Michael’s, generations of families have gathered. I am grateful for those early settlers who labored to create this sanctuary in the small town of Buckman, Minnesota.

Please check back as I take you inside St. Michael’s for the final post in this three-part series.

© Copyright 2021 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