Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The comfortable familiarity of Freedom August 19, 2012

IF YOU’VE EVER STEPPED inside a building and felt like you’d been there before, but you haven’t, then you can relate to the story I am about to share in photos and conversation. Come on. Let’s open the door and enter Immanuel Lutheran Church, Freedom Township, rural Janesville.

Ah, the double front doors are locked. We’ll try the side door. Good, it’s open. I wonder if there’s an alarm system. I don’t want the Waseca County Sheriff showing up. Let’s go up the stairs to the main level.

Now where are the light switches? Oh, right there next to the guest register. I like that old light by the guest book. Wonder if it works? Nope. Sorry, almost anything can distract me.

Even with the lights on, it’s kind of dark in here. Maybe we should open the shades. There, that’s better.

That altar and Jesus statue look familiar. They remind me of the altar and statue in St. John’s Lutheran Church, Vesta, the church where I grew up. And isn’t that organ a beauty?

I wonder if there’s a nice wood floor under that carpet. And what’s hiding under all those ceiling tiles?

Well, instead of standing here wondering, we better keep moving along if we’re going to get to the mission festival at Marquardt’s Grove by 10:30. I have much to see yet and photograph.

But wait a minute, what’s that over there on that post? An old thermometer. Huh, wonder how long that’s been here?

Alright, let’s head upstairs and see what’s in the balcony. It’s kind of tempting to pull that bell rope, isn’t it? Don’t worry, I’ve never given in to such temptation.

But I will move that wastebasket and stack of Vacation Bible School supplies so I can photograph that time-worn bench. Need to let a little natural light in, though, so I’ll pull up the shades. That’s better.

Oh, my goodness, look at those stars on that attendance sheet. I haven’t thought about those shiny, sticky stars in decades. I remember when my Sunday School teacher awarded stars for attendance. I thought they were the greatest thing. The memories…

Time to head down to the basement after I take a few more pictures up here. Yes, I have got a good grip on my camera. I don’t want it tumbling over the balcony railing.

Now, down to the basement we go. I need to pause here for a minute and take it all in.

Those curtains—see those curtains there—St. John’s had those in the basement, too. The curtains divided the basement into classrooms for Sunday School. I didn’t know churches still used those. I can almost hear the grating sound of those curtains closing and opening and remember how we kids had to take turns pulling the fabric closed, then open, at the end of Sunday School. Sweet memories…

Well, I better stop reminiscing because it’s after 10 a.m. and we do need to get to that worship service down the road in the cow pasture.

But, wait, I see one more thing I need to photograph…those lambs representing baptized children…

FYI: Immanuel Lutheran Church, commonly known as Freedom Church because of its location in Freedom Township, is located along Waseca County Road 3 about nine miles south of Janesville. Founded in 1874, this Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation has a total baptized and communicant membership of 114.

The organ in the church, interestingly enough, came from Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault where I have been a member for 30 years. When Trinity upgraded to another organ in 1911, the old organ was moved on a sled pulled by oxen some 40 miles to Freedom Church.

Freedom Church is not typically unlocked, but was open on the Sunday of my visit so members could leave food in the church basement for the mission festival potluck, according to member Joan Quiram. A big thank you to Joan for inviting me to the annual mission festival of Freedom and Wilton churches. You can read and view photos of that event by clicking here and then here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Photographing a mission festival near Janesville August 9, 2012

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WHEN I PHOTOGRAPH an event such as the mission festival last Sunday at Marquardt’s Grove, rural Janesville, I slip into my sleuth persona. Hey, I read Nancy Drew mysteries as a young girl, what can I say?

The overall scene at Sunday’s mission fest, looking toward the stage and worship areas.

Perhaps it’s not as much sleuthing as observing which, I suppose, is the essential component of good detective work. First I’ll view the big picture, the overall scene. And then I’ll begin to break it down, to notice the details.

It takes concentration, effort, and an ability to understand the smaller parts which, pieced together, comprise the whole.

This I do all the while also trying to remember what I am hearing and the general mood of the setting. It is not easy because I sometimes become so zoned in on shooting images that I shut down my other senses.

The other challenge comes in being respectful to those attending such events. On Sunday I was especially concerned about that given this was a worship service. I think, I hope, that after awhile worshipers no longer noticed me slinking around trees, weaving my way past temporary plank pews or pointing my camera down at their hands and toward their faces.

Yes, I expect observers sometimes wonder what exactly I am photographing. Digital photography has unleashed my creativity. I aim to tell a story with my photos, to take you there, to show you the details that make life especially interesting.

Here then are some of my detailed photos—the ones you likely would not think of taking—from the mission festival of Freedom and Wilton Lutheran churches.

The first detail: the sign on the front steps of Freedom Church about a mile from the mission site in Marquardt’s Grove.

The jacks, as they are termed, which hold the planks in place, have been used for some 60 years. The planks, for the “pews,” are borrowed from a local lumberyard and then returned after the mission festival.

Sharlou Quiram measured the makeshift altar before crafting a cross design quilt of satins, velvets and brocades nearly 10 years ago. It hides the altar, “a bunch of really old board nailed together,” says Len Marquardt, and in use for 60 years. Flowers come from parishioners’ gardens, patios, decks, yards.

When I took this photo of the choir, I was aiming to emphasize the outdoor setting in the woods.

Vintage pocket-size songbooks were boxed and stashed on the stage behind the Freedom Band. The first hymn of the day was “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” At the end of the service these books, which have been used for decades, were collected.

Some of the music used by the Freedom Band was transposed decades ago from a hymnal.

Ava, 15 months, hangs out at the pop and candy stand with her dad, Ben.

A 12-volt battery and converter amplifier powered the speaker system for the worship service.

Desserts, including coveted homemade blueberry pie, and an abundance of main dishes and salads lined makeshift tables (boards supported by sawhorses) at the potluck following the worship service.

Enjoying the potluck dinner in Marquardt’s Grove while diners wait in line to dish up food. The vivid colors, the contrast of neon orange and hot pink, caught my visual interest as I captured this photo.

That’s exactly what you think it is, an outhouse in the woods, built from old barn boards. Follow the cow trail and you’re there. The outhouse is meticulously scrubbed every year before the mission fest. The grounds are also cleaned by volunteers who pick up the cow poop and sticks and then mow portions of the pasture as needed. Lynne Holst, wife of guest pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert Holst, told my husband an interesting story about outhouses. When the Holst family served as missionaries in New Guinea from 1962 – 1968, Pastor Holst asked his wife what she wanted as a birthday gift one year. She thought, then replied, “A new outhouse.” She got her wish.

FYI: Click here to read an earlier blog post about the mission festival.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In southern Minnesota: “An old-time mission festival out in the woods” August 7, 2012

A sign marks the mission festival site at Marquardt’s Grove where cattle gates to the pasture are opened to allow entry. That’s the dry bed of Bull Run Creek on the left.

AT 8 A.M. SUNDAY, Harold Krienke swung his truck into Marquardt’s Grove some 10 miles south of Janesville to help set up for the annual mission festival in the woods near his country church, Immanuel Lutheran.

It was then he spotted the large black cat with the long tail edging dried up Bull Run Creek some 100 feet from the site where worshipers would gather 2 ½ hours later. “It wasn’t a house cat,” Krienke laughs. The cat—perhaps a panther, some speculate—didn’t scare him; it had been seen previously in the area.

Krienke’s animal encounter certainly wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last, at this mission festival held for the past 75 years in a five-acre wooded section of a 70-acre pasture where cattle still graze days before the event. Last year several head of cattle busted through an electric fence and charged across the creek toward the worship site. Another time horses caused a bit of trouble. No harm done, though, as the wayward animals were chased away.

Len Marquardt, who owns the woodlot and pasture, previously owned by his father, Alfred, and Alfred’s father, Gustav, before him, takes it all in stride. A few wandering animals won’t stop him from continuing the tradition of three generations of his family hosting the long-time festival of Freedom Church, as it is commonly known (referencing its location in Freedom Township), and the past two years in conjunction with Trinity Lutheran Church, Wilton Township, also known as the Wilton Church.

An overview of the worship site with the Freedom Band seated on the stage and the audience seated on plank benches and lawn chairs on the hillside. Freedom and Trinity Pastor Glenn Korb is standing at the makeshift altar.

Len’s heart and soul are committed to what he defines as “an old-time mission festival out in the woods.”

That definition seems apt for this event which, many Freedom members estimate, has been ongoing for a century. In the early days, area farmers took turns hosting the annual summer mission festival. The outdoor worship service has always been held around the same time of year, initially chosen, Len says, because the wheat harvest would have just been completed and farmers would have had more money to donate to the church.

Offerings are collected in ice cream buckets at the mission festival.

Money, though, has never been the focus of the festival although a collection is taken. Rather, the purpose is to “help people to focus on missions,” says Len, who several years ago accompanied his daughter, Julie, and others on a mission trip to Nicaragua. It changed him and he now takes personally the words “Here am I, send me” from the hymn “Hark! the Voice of Jesus Crying.” Julie, now a third-year student at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska, followed up with a mission trip to Hong Kong and is now considering a career as a missionary.

“I think we need to be a church in mission,” Len says as he explains the purpose of the mission fest on his family’s property. The natural setting of farm fields, open pasture and woods, with a cool breeze stirring oak leaves and raising goosebumps on Sunday morning, connected worshipers to the message delivered by the Rev. Dr. Robert Holst, retired president of Concordia University, St. Paul, and a former missionary to Papua, New Guinea.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Holst delivered a message on missions and afterward answered questions about his missionary service in New Guinea. Len Marquardt says the congregation has never had trouble finding a guest pastor as they savor participating in an “old-time mission festival out in the woods.”

As Rev. Holst spoke of his experiences in his sermon, “Global Missions: International Love,” worshipers, sitting among the trees, could easily imagine the primitive ways of the New Guinea people, their belief in spirits, their sacrifice of pigs, their mistrust and misunderstandings and lack of knowledge about God and the challenges the pastor faced in telling them about Christ.

Foreign missions seemed as close as a thought away for attendees like Jeanette Schoenfeld of Wilton Church who enjoys the mission fest because, she says, “It’s like they do in Africa,” worshiping outdoors.

Baby Jaci sits with her dad, Mike, and brother, Bales, during the worship service.

Len Marquardt and others, including his sister, Sally Hodge, appreciate, too, the traditions they are passing from family to family through generations of mission festivals. As Sally samples a vinegary, potato-green bean dish prepared for the mission fest potluck, she glances back to kids racing up the wooded hillside. “I remember tromping up the hills, tromping up the trails, building wood forts…talk about history and family and pleasure in knowing each other…” Sally says as she glances across the table at friend and fellow parishioner Davin Quiram.

All ages, and several generations of families, attended the mission fest on Sunday.

Sally Hodge sings in the choir and usually plays in the band. But this year she didn’t make the practices so was unable to join the Freedom Band. She lives just up the hill from Marquardt’s Grove and grew up on the other side of “just up the hill.”

Davin, like Sally a life-long member of Freedom, concurs as the two reminisce and remember the rare treat of soda pop from the mission fest pop and candy stand, which Davin will later man. The friends don’t recall specific mission speakers or messages from their childhood days, only those racing through the woods and gulping pop memories.

Davin, though, is quick to rattle off the areas of ministry covered by mission speakers in the past 10 years: American Indians, Hispanic, college, Japanese and such.

An elderly man turns to a hymn in the old pocket-size songbook that’s been used for decades.

While guest speakers change from year to year, the music remains constant with worshipers singing hymns from the pocket-size Mission Hymns Suitable for Mission Festivals and Similar Gatherings (out of print for 80 years).

Likewise, the Freedom Band, the church band comprised of Freedom members and others from the area and in existence for an estimated 80 years, uses the same familiar music books such as The Church Band Book—Choral Melodies of the Lutheran church for Military Band by A. Grimm, published in 1919 by Antigo Publishing Co., and a handwritten book of music transposed from a hymnal for the band.

The Freedom Band and some of its handwritten music.

The Freedom Band has always played at the mission fest and other area mission events in years gone by. At any time, 5 – 7 members of Sally’s family, the Marquardts, may be playing in the band—all on the trumpet but for one on the sax.

Gemma Lin returned to the mission fest, one year after her baptism there in 2011.

Part of mission fest also includes the occasional outdoor baptism. Sally’s father, Alfred, born in 1911, was baptized at the Freedom Mission Festival. Last year, a century later, two-month-old Gemma Lin of Mankato was baptized in Marquardt’s Grove and her great uncle was baptized the night before at Freedom Church. Aleta Lin, Gemma’s mom, treasures her daughter’s unique baptism and the story of that baptism which will always be a part of family history. She hopes Gemma will, through the years, continue to attend mission fest, a life-long tradition for Aleta, a life-long member of Freedom Church.

A bible lies on the floor of the stage where the band played and the preachers preached.

For those outside of Freedom, memories of past mission fests also come quickly. Such festivals were once a staple among rural congregations as a time to worship God in the outdoors, to socialize afterward at a potluck dinner and even meet future spouses.

Worshipers line up for a potluck dinner after the worship service.

Guest pastor Holst opened his message by reminiscing about the mission fests of his youth, recalling the washtubs full of soda pop—root beer, 7-UP and Orange Crush—set out by the youth group. He also remembered the ball games between fathers and children.

On Sunday there were no ball games or kids racing for a rare treat of pop. But plenty of kids—from babies to teens—settled onto temporary wood plank benches and lawn chairs or upon blankets or in car seats on the same ground in Marquardt’s Grove that has, for generations, served as an outdoor house of worship on one Sunday in August.

The vintage mini songbook lying on planks and the mission site in the background.

FYI: Check back for an additional post featuring mission fest photos and for a separate photo essay of Freedom Church.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling