Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

What’s the deal with all the flies at Valley Grove? April 27, 2018

 

The historic Valley Grove Churches, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

ALL YOU SCIENTIST, ENTOMOLOGY, biology types out there, I need your input to solve a mystery. I suppose I could google the topic, but I’d rather read your theories or fact-based conclusions.

 

The buzzing started once we stepped inside the front gate and onto the grass between the two churches.

 

Last Sunday afternoon while walking on the grounds of Valley Grove Church, rural Nerstrand, I heard a buzzing. Like a zillion bees. At first I thought I was hearing things because, when I would stop, the droning also stopped.

I questioned whether I could be suffering from tinnitus, an occasional issue given my hearing loss. I’m nearly deaf in the my right ear which causes all sorts of problems in determining sound sources and in hearing in general.

 

 

But this buzzing seemed real. I risked asking my husband if he heard what I heard. He did. We paused on the dormant dried grass. No buzzing. Then we took a few steps and the irritating hum resumed. Then my observant husband, with the way better vision than me, saw the flies. Everywhere. Infinite numbers settled on the grass as if sunning themselves. I strained to see the camouflaged flies and then photograph them. I managed one image of a single fly. Whenever either of us moved, they, too, moved. It was the craziest thing.

 

One of several birdhouses located on the grassland hiking area.

 

I’m a woman who has a history with flies. They were part of my growing up environment on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm. A fly swatter was always at the ready. Sticky fly traps dangled from ceilings in our farmhouse; one even hung over the kitchen table. Not at all appealing. But I’d rather see a dead fly than have one land on my dinner plate. In the barn, biting, swarming flies were a constant problem. For cows. And for humans.

 

This aged, massive oak is a focal point in the corner of the cemetery.

 

But why were these thousands (maybe even millions) of flies here, on these church and cemetery grounds on a sunny late April afternoon, the first warm weekend of the season in Minnesota? There were no cattle (although the occasional piles of deer and other animal poop). There was no food.

 

 

The insects didn’t swarm the entire grounds—mostly just the area between the two historic church buildings and along the edge of the adjoining cemetery.

 

 

Once I got past the fly territory, I enjoyed my time at Valley Grove. It’s a beautiful place of quiet, of peace, set high atop a hill with lovely rural vistas. There are hiking trails and history in the cemetery (and churches when they are open). Generations of families are buried here. And there are oak trees, including one held together by thick chains in the corner of the cemetery.

This place holds stories. And now it holds one more story—the mystery of the fly invasion.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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A lot of Irish in Saint Thomas in Derrynane Township March 20, 2018

 

I APPROACHED THE BEAUTIFUL brick church with the full expectation that the doors would be locked. They were. There would be no getting inside St. Thomas Catholic Church on this St. Patrick’s Day. I felt disappointment, but not surprise.

 

 

 

A hot pink sign tacked onto the church sign notes an Easter vigil here on March 31.

 

Even though shut out, Randy and I still explored, circling this immense church with stained glass windows and with tower steepling to a cross.

 

 

We crunched across crusty snow to look at gravestones that bear the Irish history of this place in names like O’Malley, Shea, O’Connell and noted ancestral roots in Cork County, Ireland and elsewhere.

 

Driving into Saint Thomas, Minnesota.

 

This village lies in the middle of farmland with this farm site on the edge of Saint Thomas.

 

This ag business sits right next to the cemetery.

 

Then comes the town hall.

 

And, finally, Callahan’s, which appeared no longer in business.

 

Saint Thomas is through-and-through Irish, based on our observations of this unincorporated village along Le Sueur County Road 28 just north of Le Center in Derrynane Township. We found this settlement via an atlas that is our guidebook to mostly unknown places in Minnesota. With a name like St. Thomas, we expected a Catholic church and not much more.

 

 

The church, built in 1883, closed in January 2011, just another among many rural Catholic churches shuttered and merged. Mass is still held occasionally at St. Thomas.

 

 

I often wonder how long such mostly vacated churches will stand. St. Thomas appeared well-cared for still. At least on this St. Patrick’s Day in 2018. But when those who once worshiped weekly here are gone, will their descendants care? Will they still tend the cemetery, swing open the doors for an Easter vigil? I hope so.

 

© Copyright 2018 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

 

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