Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A drive in the Minnesota countryside takes me to St. Jarlath November 7, 2017

 

“SAINT JARLATH. Who’s that?” I asked my Catholic-raised and educated husband as we pulled up to a rural Minnesota cemetery during a recent Sunday afternoon drive.

 

 

He offered no information, as puzzled as me by the saint behind the name of St. Jarlath’s Catholic Cemetery located just off Waseca County Road 22 in Iosco Township. My later online research revealed Bishop Jarlath as the founder and principle patron of the Archdiocese of Tuam in Galway, Ireland. Irish names in the cemetery should have tipped us off.

 

 

I delight in discovering such well-kept rural cemeteries edged next to equally well-maintained churches. Clearly, people care deeply about this place. That pleases me although the closure of rural parishes like this one does not.

 

 

As we wandered the grounds, I spotted autumn décor adorning some gravesites. Seeing scarecrows on a tombstone marked a first for me.

 

 

I noticed, too, the trees,

 

 

the aged, and not so aged, stones,

 

 

the loving words

 

 

 

 

 

 

and clear markers of faith in crosses high and low.

 

 

I tugged at the church door, hoping to get inside. I never expect access. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. Gone are the days of unattended, open churches. I can only imagine the beauty, the history within this country church.

 

 

The ability to freely wander this cemetery on a stunning autumn afternoon tempered my disappointment. To see folks honor their ancestors and Saint Jarlath through a well-kept church and grounds encourages me. This place remains important—at least for now to those still living.

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AS I SCHEDULED this post, written days before the deadly mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I feel compelled to add this postscript expressing my sorrow and thoughts. I cannot fathom the loss to these families, to this community, about the same size as my Minnesota hometown. My heart breaks. A church, of all places, should be a sanctuary from violence. No place seems safe any more.

Initial media reports reveal the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence and that he sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law shortly before killing 26 people and wounding another 20 at the church. This troubles me. Domestic violence continues to root deep into our society. I read or hear media reports daily about murder-suicides, violations of restraining orders, calls to domestic disturbances, stalking, assaults…and more. For every case reported to law enforcement, many many more are not reported. Because of fear. Because of intimidation. Because of control and manipulation.

The invasive crime of domestic abuse and violence is affecting too many of our families, our neighborhoods, our communities and, yes, even our churches, directly and indirectly.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Rural Faribault church continues 55-year tradition with The Last Supper Drama April 7, 2017

St. John’s members portray the disciples in this undated vintage photo, the first record of a photograph from The Last Supper Drama. Actors, from left to right, are Luverne Hafemeyere, Earl Meese, Vicgtor Luedke, Howard Meese, Virgil Bosshart, Arnold Keller, P.L. Golden, Alvin bosshart, Paul Bauer, Elmer Covert Sr. and Arnold Bauer. Photo courtesy of St. John’s.

 

AS A WOMAN OF FAITH, I appreciate the opportunity to begin Holy Week in a visually memorable and contemplative way by attending “The Last Supper Drama” at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township. The drama begins at 8 p.m. on Palm Sunday, April 9, as darkness falls.

For 55 years now, parishioners past and present, playing the roles of Jesus’ disciples, have presented this interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting. Each disciple actor stands and speaks of his personal relationship with Christ. It is moving, powerful and emotional to hear these monologues in the darkness of an aged limestone country church.

 

St. John’s 50th presentation of The Last Supper Drama in the sanctuary. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

While the actors alternate from year to year, the script and music remain unchanged from the original of 1963. There is comfort in that, in tradition, in the unchanging story, in the reverent respect and in the focused spotlight on Christ.

It’s an inspirational way to start Holy Week, in a mindset of contemplation.

 

The parking lot at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is nearly full 20 minutes before the congregation’s annual performance of The Last Supper Drama. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

FYI: Click here to see photos and stories from past performances of this drama.

St. John’s UCC is located east of Faribault at 19086 Jacobs Avenue, a county road off Minnesota State Highway 60.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than a car show at St. John’s, rural Faribault August 3, 2016

At the St. John's car cruise-in.

At the St. John’s car cruise-in.

I’VE ATTENDED CAR SHOWS in parks, along city streets and at a fairgrounds. But never at a church or in the country.

A vintage car arrives for the cruise-in car show at St. John's, 19086 Jacobs Avenue, rural Faribault.

A vintage car arrives for the cruise-in car show at St. John’s, 19086 Jacobs Avenue, rural Faribault.

A tractor trophy awarded at the show reflects the rural region.

A tractor trophy awarded at the show reflects this rural region of southern Minnesota.

Across the road from St. John's, a truck pulls a grain bin.

Across the road from St. John’s, a truck pulls a grain bin.

Saturday morning I wheeled to a country church northeast of Faribault for St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township’s first-ever Cruise-In Car Show. It’s a peaceful rural setting among farm fields and farm sites near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

An overview of the car show next to the church.

An overview of the car show next to the church.

This congregation knows how to draw folks in for events ranging from the annual The Last Supper Drama on Palm Sunday to Lenten soup luncheons to an ice cream social to a September Germanfest to the Big Woods Run and more. Many times I’ve gone to St. John’s activities, where I always feel welcomed by a friendly group of people like 90-year-old historian Elsie, Lynn (who’s usually in the kitchen) and the Rev. Lora Sturm.

My husband's hands clasped in prayer.

My husband’s hands clasped in prayer.

On this Saturday morning, the reverend leads attendees in prayer. As I stand between a row of vintage cars in the church parking lot, I consider how wonderful to hear this prayer of blessing upon the vehicles and upon those in attendance.

This group of men visited for a long time around various vehicles.

This group of men visited for a long time around various vehicles.

While visiting with others, I note that most either belong to this congregation or grew up in this church. There’s a special closeness in country churches that comes from living in the same geographical area and gathering here to socialize, to celebrate, to mourn, to grow in the faith (although some admittedly have drifted away).

The oldest vehicle at the event.

The oldest vehicle at the event.

Roots run deep through generations of families. German immigrants founded this congregation in 1856 as Minnesota’s first German Evangelical Church. They worshiped, nonagenarian Elsie tells me, in a log cabin before that burned and the current church was built in 1870 by German farmers from locally-quarried limestone.

I set my camera on the grass and aimed up to photograph this view of St. John's.

I set my camera on the grass and aimed up to photograph this view of St. John’s. Yes, there’s a cross-topped steeple, just not in this image.

The “Old Stone Church,” as it is known, stands strong on the corner of a paved county and gravel road next to the church cemetery. A 4-year-old boy points to a gravestone and tells me God is buried there. I lead him to the stone, read the name thereon and explain to him that God is not buried here nor is He dead.

Cars parked right next to the cemetery.

Cars parked right next to the cemetery.

I love that these kids have been together for hours—romping on the mini playground, playing hide-and-seek, searching for a geo-cache stashed in a treeline behind the cemetery… This setting invites such play, reminding me of my own upbringing in a small town Lutheran church.

The scene reflected in the shiny bumper of a car.

The scene reflected in the shiny bumper of a car.

Guys chatted next to tractors.

Guys chatted next to tractors.

Lovely crabapple trees edge the parking lot. St. John's members make their famous apple jelly from these apples to sell at Germanfest.

Lovely crabapple trees edge the parking lot. St. John’s members make their famous apple jelly from these apples to sell at Germanfest.

On this Saturday, this cruise-in is not just a gathering of car, truck and tractor enthusiasts showing off their vehicles. This event is about memories and socializing, about slowing down and appreciating the beauty and quiet of this reverent country place. It’s about being neighborly.

Volunteers served up a generous plate of a BBQ pulled pork sandwich, potato salad and beans, all for $5.

Volunteers served up a generous plate of a BBQ pulled pork sandwich, potato salad and beans, all for $5.

That delicious food.

That delicious food.

And it’s also about the food, this time delicious BBQ pulled pork sandwiches from the Rice County Pork Producers.

I always leave St. John's feeling happy and smiling.

I always leave St. John’s feeling happy and smiling.

St. John’s, from my experience, has always nourished the body, soul and spirit. And on this late July morning, this cruise-in accomplishes that mission in food, setting and friendly conversation.

FYI: Check back tomorrow and the day after for more photos from the St. John’s Cruise-In Car Show.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dear God, please restore the power October 14, 2014

Parked outside Trinity Lutheran Church North Morristown on Sunday morning for the congregation's annual fall dinner.

Parked outside Trinity Lutheran Church North Morristown on Sunday morning for the congregation’s annual fall dinner.

THE IRISH I M van parked outside the German Lutheran Church makes me laugh.

And it’s good to laugh on a Sunday morning when the power has been out for hours and the Lutheran ladies have been scurrying, along with their anxious husbands, to cart roasters of hot food from the church basement.

It is the morning of Trinity North Morristown’s annual fall dinner and the worst possible date for the power to fail at a nearby substation.

Before worship services on a Sunday morning at Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown.

Before worship services on a Sunday morning at Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Upstairs in the sanctuary, pews are nearly empty as congregants scramble to move food to the homes of parishioners with power and to nearby Camp Omega. Eventually the pews fill. The church organist gathers her songbooks from the balcony and hurries to the piano at the front of the sanctuary.

The pastor jokes, during the morning worship service, about his strong and resilient German Lutheran congregation, then prays later for the electricity to come back on.

But when he blesses worshipers, the lights are still out.

So the well isn’t working and the toilet can’t be flushed except it can with water hauled in milk cans to pour into the toilet tank.

Outside, the scent of coffee wafts from an open kettle set atop a propane fueled burner.

Tickets for the dinner are selling and diners file in a side door, up the steps and into pews to await dismissal to the basement. Food has been hauled back, down the stairs, into the semi dark kitchen.

In the dim light of the sanctuary, conversation flows with the comfort that comes from visiting within the close confines of a small country church.

Then, just like that, the lights flick on at 11:10 a.m. Applause erupts. An audible gasp escapes, though, when the power flickers, off and on, before remaining on.

Dinner, tables set

Tables await diners in the church basement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Diners file to the basement, the IRISH I M and the Lutherans, to feast on ham and turkey and to give thanks for an answer to prayer.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rural Faribault church presents 50th annual The Last Supper Drama March 29, 2012

St. John's members portray the disciples in this undated vintage photo, the first record of a photograph from The Last Supper Drama. Actors, from left to right, are Luverne Hafemeyer, Earl Meese, Victor Luedke, Howard Meese, Virgil Bosshart, Arnold Keller, P.L. Golden, Alvin Bosshart, Paul Bauer, Elmer Covert Sr. and Arnold Bauer. Photo courtesy of St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township.

EVERY LENTEN SEASON since 1963, worshipers and actors have gathered inside the 1870 limestone sanctuary of St. John’s United Church of Christ—Wheeling Township, rural Faribault, for The Last Supper Drama.

It is, says 2012 co-director Pauline Wiegrefe, a moving, emotional Palm Sunday drama that puts participants and attendees “in the mindset of Holy Week.”

Sunday, April 1, marks the 50th anniversary presentation of the drama penned by long-ago St. John’s pastor the Rev. Walter C. Rasche. He wrote the script while serving in an Indiana parish and brought it with him to Minnesota. When Rasche left St. John’s in 1969, The Last Supper Drama tradition continued.

The script, which features 12 men positioned like the disciples in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting and then speaking individually about their relationships with Christ, has remained unchanged in five decades.

Cast members in the 2011 The Last Supper Drama, left to right: Todd Lein, Craig Mueller, Alan Meyer, Grant Meese, Martin Budde, Paul Meyer, Thad Monroe, Kyle Keller, Doug Spike, Keith Keller, Randy Tatge and Brian Little. The white pillow on the empty chair represents Christ.

Likewise, the same hymn, “Here, Oh My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face,” continues as the single participatory musical selection. Craig Keller, drama organist, plays the same taped mood-setting organ music he’s used since 1968. Prior to that, introductory music emitted from a record player stationed behind the altar.

For original cast member and life-long St. John’s member Luverne Hafemeyer, 84 of Northfield, the drama is, he says, an emotional and inspirational experience that prepares him for Easter.

As a young farmer, Luverne jumped at the opportunity to join the original 1963 cast. During his high school years, except for an annual Youth Fellowship play presented in the nearby Nerstrand Town Hall, he had never acted. Farm work and gas rationing during WW II kept him from participating in high school activities.

But once Luverne joined The Last Supper Drama cast, he stayed on for 15 – 20 performances, finally relinquishing his role as James just five years ago. (Casts alternate from year to year.) He still helps sometimes with lighting and the post performance coffee hour.

His lines, however, remain engrained in his memory: “I am James the son of Zebedee, the elder brother of John…”

Like Luverne 50 years ago, all of today’s actors at this rural church come from a farm background. Co-director Pauline remembers her father, Arnold Keller, and her brother Keith practicing their lines while milking cows.

Actors, past and present, will be recognized during the 50th anniversary presentation set for 8 p.m. this Sunday inside the old stone church.

FYI: St. John’s United Church of Christ is located eight miles east of Faribault on Minnesota Highway 60 and then two miles north on Rice County Road 24 at 19086 Jacobs Avenue.

Visit the church website by clicking here.

To read a blog I posted about last year’s The Last Supper Drama, click here. You’ll find many more images of the drama posted here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Snippets of rural Minnesota in photos November 1, 2011

A harvest scene along U.S. Highway 52 in southeastern Minnesota Sunday afternoon.

YOU CAN TAKE the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.

Even decades after leaving my childhood farm at age 17 to start my freshman year of college in the fall of 1974, I hold tight to my agricultural roots.

My rural upbringing shaped me as a person, defined me as a writer and photographer.

More often than not, I find myself creatively focused on the rural, on those places and memories that remind me of the farm and which hold the strongest grasp on my heart.

So I am naturally drawn to photographing rural landscapes and barns and country churches and tractors and small towns whenever I travel. These are the places and objects to which I feel the deepest connection.

I'm always and forever photographing barns like this one along Hwy 52 between Pine Island and Rochester.

Today I’ll take you along U.S. Highway 52 and Interstate 90 in the southeastern section of Minnesota. I’ll show you rural snippets photographed at highway speeds through the passenger side and front windows of our family’s cars. Yes, cars, plural. My husband and I made a quick jaunt to Tomah, Wisconsin, on Sunday to exchange vehicles with our second daughter. Hers needs repair and we met her half-way between her home and ours.

After 2 ½ hours of travel to reach Tomah, we lunched with Miranda and a friend before turning around and heading back home to Faribault.

The day rated as gloomy and dreary weather-wise. Yet, as you will see, such moody skies bring out an emotion in images that you might not feel had the day been sunny bright.

I’m always surprised, when I view the photos, to see the details I missed in the process of shooting the images. But then, along-the-highway scenes flash by in an instant and they are gone, not wholly appreciated until that second, later look in a photo.

You can barely see the distant tractor in this shot. But that's what I like about this scene, how the sheer size of the cornfield and the skies dwarf the tractor, reinforcing the thought that everything is truly small in comparison to the landscape, to the big, big world.

Every red building stood out against the grey, grey skies. Sky is always an integral part of my photos.

Even the stripes of crops are aesthetically pleasing to my photographer's eye.

This photo of Pine Island connects town and country in a seamless blend.

An historic barn and a horse...a common sight along Hwy 52 and I-90.

The red-roofed barn provides a jolt of color under heavy grey skies.

A country church, strong and sturdy, along I-90 near the Winona exit. Look closely and you'll see a sheriff's department squad car parked by the church.

Westbound on I-90, the sun begins to set. I like the contrast between the vivid yellow sign and the grey of the day.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The season of church dinners October 23, 2011

To everything there is a season, and a time for every harvest dinner in the church basement:

A time to be prepared

And a time to enlist volunteers;

A time to bake

And a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to pull out the plates and roasters

And a time to feed those who come seeking nourishment;

A time to serve the hungry waiting in line

And a time to dish up meals for those who want take-out;

A time to savor good home-cooking

in the company of family and friends;

A time to remember the past in old photos and conversation

And a time to welcome new friends into the fold;

A time to encourage those who labor tirelessly in the kitchen

And a time to be thankful for this land we love, in the season of harvest.

THESE PHOTOS were taken at the recent Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown, annual fall harvest dinner, country store and bake sale.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling