AS HOLY WEEK MOVES ever closer to Easter Sunday, I find myself focusing on hope. It’s such a positive word. One that I’ve held close to my heart through some really difficult challenges in life.
This past pandemic year has challenged all of us. Stretched our endurance, our patience, our ability to cope. To live life in a way that would keep us, and those we love, safe. I’ve felt frustrated about lax attitudes and behaviors regarding COVID-19. But through all of this, I’ve tried to balance that with hope.
Hope seems synonymous with spring in Minnesota. Nature reveals hope in spring bulbs popping, in trees budding, in dormant grass greening and much more.
After a season of cold and darkness, hope breaks forth in longer days. More warmth. More sunshine. More light.
And now, in this too long season of COVID, hope for an end to this pandemic.
As a woman of faith, I also view this time of year through the lens of eternal hope. I see the face of Jesus. Determined. Caring. Suffering. Dying. And then living, breathing. Alive. Darkness replaced by light on Easter morning. The light of eternal life.
This Easter Sunday, just like last, I’ll miss celebrating Easter in person with my faith family. I’ll miss the feeling that comes with worshiping inside a church with other Christians. I’ll miss the scent of lilies and the reverberation of the organ. I’ll miss the blessings of being among friends, of joyful Easter greetings.
Yet, I can still view the Easter service online or listen on the radio. I can experience worship indirectly. I can praise God and pray and let the joyful music of Easter fill my ears. And my mind. Hope remains. I know that my Redeemer lives! What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
TO YOU, MY DEAR READERS, I wish you a most blessed, joyful and hope-filled Easter!
ASH WEDNESDAY PASSED yesterday not without my lack of awareness of this special day in the Christian church. Rather, I experienced the day with an acute awareness rooted in a recent personal loss—the death of my father-in-law.
Now, a day after the Wednesday symbolizing death and repentance and the beginning of Lent, I am thinking of my husband’s father, his funeral and burial only one week ago.
…for dust you are and to dust you will return—Genesis 3:19.
I doubt any words can better describe the reality of death. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. That’s basic. Understandable. Maybe uncomfortable for some. But it’s truth. We’re all going to die, whether at age 90 like my father-in-law or age 19 like my nephew Justin in 2001. Sometimes death takes our loved ones way too soon.
Last Thursday, as we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for Tom and heard the priest speak those familiar words of dust to dust, grief and reality descended. Yet, as a woman of faith, hope balances that in the belief that I will see my loved ones again in heaven. Dad Helbling. Justin. My dad and grandparents and many aunts and uncles…and others I’ve had the joy of loving. For to love is to also open one’s heart to grief. And to hope.
It was an unusually frigid February day in central Minnesota with the temp hovering around zero as we gathered at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman. Over the course of more than three hours, memories imprinted upon me. Memories shaped in part by a global pandemic, which affected the ways in which we could be comforted. Randy and I declined hugs and handshakes. There would be no luncheon, the time of one-on-one visits. No getting together with siblings, at least for us, either before the funeral or after.
Yet, simply being together in the same building brought comfort. Comfort came, too, in flowers and music and Scripture. Like the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, read by my sister-in-law Rosie. When she read a time to embrace and a time to refrain, I thought, how fitting for a funeral during COVID-19.
Images seared into my mind—like the lowering of the casket lid over my father-in-law. Or the surprise of seeing my then preschool-aged son in an image atop the casket spray. He was perched on the seat of his grandpa’s Ford 9N tractor in a photo I took decades ago.
Many times throughout the service—especially during the farewell chant and song of angels welcoming Dad into heaven—I focused on the heavenly angels painted on the ceiling high above the altar. What a gift the artists and craftsmen of this aged church left for mourners. Art comforts.
So does music, especially music. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and many other songs filled this massive church with the most beautiful, heavenly music performed by musicians in the balcony. St. Michael’s has incredible acoustics. Randy and I suggested to his classmate Janel prior to the service that perhaps the musical team could play a polka or waltz in honor of Dad, who so enjoyed both and who also played piano, organ and accordion (not the concertina, as the priest noted). My sister-in-law Vivian shared with me later that the hymn “Whispering Hope,” played before the casket closed, was a popular waltz at wedding dances in the area and was a favorite of her parents. I love nuances like that which personalize a funeral.
As I sat through the service next to Randy on an uncomfortably hard straight-back pew, physically-distanced from family, I determined not to cry. I didn’t want to cry into my mask. I considered how surreal this felt to experience a funeral during a global pandemic. And how surreal also to experience a funeral during Minnesota’s longest cold snap in nearly three decades.
We dressed for the weather, wearing long johns under our dress pants. Randy told me his dad wore long johns often back on the farm so this extra layer of warmth seemed another fitting tribute. Before heading to the cemetery, we slipped out of dress shoes into snow boots.
And then, once grandchildren slid their grandfather’s casket into the hearse for the short drive to the cemetery, mourners followed by foot, crossing Minnesota State Highway 25. A church officiant stood half-way into the traffic lane, bundled for warmth, purple mask covering his face, holding a pole with crucifix atop as traffic waited out of respect for us to cross the road. It was a strong visual moment for me. The red pick-up truck parked curbside contrasting with mourners dressed in black. Waiting vehicles. Masks and stocking caps and bald heads (among those who chose to brave the elements minus head coverings). The priest in his, oh, so Minnesotan red buffalo plaid coat and matching ear flapper cap. An icy parking lot with occasional welcome patches of gravel. And then, the final steps across the snow to the burial site.
As my nieces and nephews carried my father-in-law’s casket, I felt the heaviness of grief. The cold of death, balanced by the promise of eternal life. Grief and joy.
And then, in one last act of love, we each stepped up to pull flowers from the casket spray to lay upon the casket. I chose a red rose, not yet blackened by the cold, placed it on the shiny grey surface. And then, with my mittened hand, I patted the lid twice in a final farewell to my father-in-law.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Generations have gathered here, within these walls, as a faith family.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
DAYS LATER, THE SCENE still haunts me. The scene unfolding in my neighbor’s yard at 8 Sunday morning, just across our driveway and up a small incline.
Only minutes earlier, I turned on the radio, tuned to KDHL for the worship service at Trinity Lutheran Church. As I listened, I spooned coffee grounds into a filter, filled the reservoir with water, then switched on the coffee maker to start my day.
Typically, I would be in church, worshiping in person. But, since the start of the pandemic, Randy and I have opted to stay home and listen to services either online or on the radio. It’s not my preference. But it’s my comfort level.
As I listened, I lifted the dining room shade. It was then I noticed him. The man outside a massive dumpster set in my neighbor’s driveway. At first I thought it was my neighbor, but soon realized this was a stranger, who had now climbed inside the dumpster. He rummaged methodically through the contents. Picking up, then dropping stuff. Tossing. Sorting. Moving items.
I watched mesmerized. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive or uncaring. But I felt momentarily stunned. This was a first—a presumably homeless man in my neighborhood. I felt helpless, wondering what, if anything, I could or should do. I worried that he may not be warm enough in his maroon hoodie layered under a heavy plaid flannel shirt jacket. I noticed he at least wore gloves. I worried that he may not have food. I worried, too, that he may not have shelter, a warm place to sleep in the cold of a Minnesota winter.
So many thoughts filtered through my brain as I watched while simultaneously listening to hymns and Bible readings and a sermon about Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Words that invited me to hear the voice of Jesus, to support, encourage and uplift others, including those in my community.
By my lack of action, I wasn’t exactly following that directive to live out my faith. I failed miserably. Because I did nothing.
I thought of phoning the non-emergency police number. But what would I say? That I felt concern for a man rummaging through a dumpster? That seemed a faulty plan since the individual had committed no crime. And what if the police came and the scenario quickly changed to something ugly. I’ve read/heard of that happening all too often. Not here. But as nearby as the Twin Cities metro an hour distant. I wouldn’t risk that.
And so I found myself at a loss. Approaching the man seemed unwise given COVID, concerns about my safety and so much uncertainty. I drank my coffee, ate my cereal in the warmth of my home. Sheltered from the cold.
After nearly 45 minutes, the man climbed out of the dumpster and onto his fat tire bicycle. He coasted down the street, turned the corner, then pedaled away. Empty-handed.
TELL ME: What would you have done? If this ever happens again, I want to feel prepared, perhaps have a plan of action to help. I’m open to suggestions, even to specific resources available to assist individuals like this. Thank you.
AS I PONDERED TODAY’S POST, even considered not writing one because I feel overwhelmed and emotionally drained from the events of January 6 inside our nation’s Capitol, I remembered messages I photographed back in June.
The messages, posted on the side of the historic Congregational Church of Faribault United Church of Christ, are worth our focus. They are a reminder that we, as human beings, can strive to protect, care for, forgive, share, embrace and love.
We can choose those actions over destruction, neglect, animosity, selfishness, separation and hate.
I feel such sadness, mixed with hope, over all that has transpired in recent days. I sense that most Americans, including me, will now hold a deeper appreciation for democracy. For freedom. Perhaps we (or at least I) have become too complacent.
It would do us all good to review the suggestions posted at Faribault’s Congregational Church. To reflect. And then to put into practice those very basic principles of common decency and kindness. And to remember that what we think, say and write, and how we act, matters. Just like it did in 1776.
Hope. Several years ago, while experiencing a difficult time in my life, I latched onto that as my focus word. And I’ve never let go. I need only lift my eyes from the computer screen to see “hope” defining multiple messages posted on my office desk.
CHRISTMAS 2020. What can I write that you haven’t already read? This year’s celebration will be much different as we adjust our plans due to COVID-19. Randy and I will gather with our eldest, her husband and our two darling grandchildren here in southeastern Minnesota. We won’t see our second daughter and her husband and our son living in Madison, Wisconsin, four hours away.
Is it disappointing? Of course, it is. We want to see everyone, to be together as a family. But we recognize that it’s best if we keep our distance. We don’t want to throw our caution of the past 10 months out the window, especially this close to vaccination. I remind myself of that often. And I remind myself also, that I still have family with whom I can celebrate. Nothing beats time with the grandchildren to shift your focus from what you’re missing to the joy right there beside you.
I know too many of you will be missing loved ones—lost this year to COVID or many other causes. I’m sorry for your losses. It hurts.
Yet, in all of these challenges, one thing remains unchanged about Christmas. And that is the birth of Christ. As a Christian, I reflect on this sweet baby come to earth with a plan of redemption. If not for my faith, I would struggle to face life’s challenges. That is my truth.
As I celebrate Christmas, I wish you the blessings of peace, love and joy. You, dear readers, bring me much joy by appreciating me and the work I do here on this blog. I value you. Your insights. Your kindness. Your friendship. Your care.