RURAL MINNESOTA. For Randy and me, that represents our upbringing, the place of our roots, the land that is part of our personal geography.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For some, it’s a community to pass by or through en route to wherever.
For others, it’s an occasional destination to visit extended family.
But for some of us, it’s the place of our roots.
Randy and I both grew up on dairy and crop farms near small towns—him near Buckman in central Minnesota and me just outside Vesta in southwestern Minnesota. Those communities, once thriving with elementary schools and many businesses, are no longer hubs of local commerce or education. Much has changed since we each left our respective rural towns in 1974.
Yet, the core of our hometowns, with populations under 300 and 145 miles apart, remains unchanged. Community spirit and neighborliness and a certain connection to place remain particularly strong. Often, generations of families live within miles of each other. Churches center these towns, too, as do bars, both community gathering spots.
It’s not often now that either of us returns to our hometowns. The farms we grew up on are no longer in the family, a loss I feel deeply. I return only for funerals and the annual family reunion. Only occasionally do we divert to Buckman so we can visit the gravesites of Randy’s mom and brother, Brian.
We did just that this past fall after spending time at a family member’s guest lake cabin in the Brainerd Lakes area. Buckman lies some 40 miles to the south of Brainerd. We drove through Pierz, where Randy attended junior and senior high schools, on our way to his hometown.
Some seven miles later, we pulled off Minnesota State Highway 25, which slices through Buckman, and turned into St. Michael’s Cemetery. I always feel such a sense of sadness upon visiting my mother-in-law’s gravesite. She died way too young at age 59, just months before her grandson, our son, was born.
Tragedies, like those of the Dehler family, are written upon tombstones in this cemetery landmarked by a towering stone cross.
Across the street, Family Memorial Park—with a mini playground, picnic tables and gazebo—honors 36-year-old Suzette Dehler and her children, Gerald, 15, Christopher, 14, and Tammi, 8. They died in a car-train accident in July 1986.
On this autumn afternoon, we picnicked there, behind Sev’s Food & Liquor and across the street from the bus garage. A dog barked at the neighboring house, breaking the small town silence.
To the north, massive grain bins define this as an agricultural community.
And to the west, the steeple of St. Michael’s Catholic Church rises above Buckman. It’s a beautiful church, recently refurbished, and an integral part of this town. Randy worshiped here with classmates from St. Michael’s Parochial School and with his parents and siblings. He served as an altar boy, too. We mourned his mom here and a few years later he stood as best man when his dad remarried. I photographed the wedding.
On this day, I carried my camera inside again, this time to document the sanctuary. I feel like a foreigner inside Catholic churches, which are typically massive and ornate, so different from the simple Lutheran churches of my upbringing.
Check back as I take you inside St. Michael’s in a series of posts focusing solely on this church. The art inside will, I expect, impress you. And remind you that, even in the smallest of towns, treasures await our discovery.
Upcoming posts will also feature more photos from Buckman and several from neighboring Pierz.
SLIGHTLY OVER A MONTH has passed since I wrote about COVID-19 in my southeastern Minnesota county. And in those 34 days, 22 more individuals in Rice County have died due to the virus, bringing our total deaths to 69. Since the pandemic began, the number of people infected with COVID (January 21 county stats) stands at 6,139.
My heart breaks when I consider the death data, because behind every number is a person. Someone who loved and was loved. The virus claimed individuals ranging in age from 24 – 104. Most (42) lived in long term care centers.
I scrolled through area obituaries to find a few of those individuals who died due to COVID. I appreciate when families publicly share that cause of death as I think it’s a personally powerful way to make a statement to the community that, This virus is deadly.
READ THEIR NAMES
In my brief search, I found these names: Craig, 71; Ted, 77; Harvey, 75; Chuck, 89; Norma, 92; and Dave, 87. Dave, part of my faith family, was a long-time funeral home director prior to retiring and passing along the business to his son. Craig was a Faribault pastor, the first in my county to die of COVID-19 in April.
While my immediate family has thus far remained healthy, many extended family members have gotten and recovered from the virus. Friends have also been ill, including one hospitalized for two weeks. I indirectly know others who’ve been hospitalized and/or died. They are individuals I’ve sometimes prayed for for weeks as they’ve battled the virus and struggled to recover.
My niece will tell you the story of a friend who has suffered serious, severe and long-lasting complications from COVID-19. That’s the thing about this virus. We never know if we will experience only a mild case or something much more serious. Even deadly. Age is not a given protection.
MASK WEARING REMAINS AN ISSUE
Wearing a multi-layered, tight-fitting mask (and, no, a plastic face shield alone doesn’t count as CDC-approved protection); socially distancing; washing/sanitizing hands often; avoiding time with those outside our household, especially in enclosed spaces; and staying home when sick or with COVID symptoms remain as important as ever to help stop the spread of the virus. I can’t stress those health and safety protocols enough.
I continue to see people in public without masks or wearing them below their noses and sometimes even below their mouths. That frustrates me to no end—this inability to wear a mask or to wear it correctly by covering both the mouth AND the nose. It’s not that difficult. Even my 2-year-old grandson wears his mask properly. Why is it so hard for adults (like the cashiers at a local dollar store, some grocery store customers, etc.) to do so? Most troubling was the half-masker sporting a jacket for an area small town volunteer fire and rescue department. I want to scream at these people and confront them. (I don’t. I avoid them.) And, yes, that may sound judgy. But at this point in the pandemic, when a new variant is increasing spread, masks are even more important. People ought to care about protecting others. They ought to care that their neighbors are getting really sick and/or dying.
Randy and I are some eight months shy of the age 65 cut-off. I’m not worried about myself as much as my husband. He faces possible COVID exposure in the workplace. (And, yes, there have been cases.) As a highly-skilled and in high demand automotive machinist, working from home is not an option. So I ask him to mask and distance himself from co-workers and customers, especially those non-maskers and half-maskers.
If Randy gets COVID, I likely will, too. And I’d rather not test how my body will react. A severe case of whooping cough at age 50, which left me incredibly sick for three months, gasping for air, using an inhaler and taking a steroid, shows me just how awful an illness that affects the lungs and impedes breathing. I expect COVID would be worse. Much worse.
PHOTOGRAPHING MINNESOTA COMMUNITIES remains a focal point of my photography. I love to document people, places and events with my camera.
My photos present visual stories. I suppose you could say I am both the writer and the editor. I choose what to photograph and how. I decide, in the moment, whether to show you a detailed up-close subject or whether to cover a broader area. Both are important in storytelling. I also decide the perspective from which I will photograph. Down low. Eye level. Or some other angle.
During a recent visit to Northfield, one of my favorite Minnesota communities about a 20-minute drive away, I had exactly 10 minutes to photograph before our food order was ready for pick up on the other side of town. I asked Randy to act as time-keeper. When I’m photographing, I lose all track of time, so engaged am I in the creative process.
We parked near Bridge Square, the heart of downtown Northfield and a community gathering spot. On this late January afternoon with the temp not quite 20 degrees and with COVID-19 reducing the number of visitors to this typically busy downtown, I observed only a few people out and about. Often finding a place to park proves challenging. Not so on this Saturday.
We walked toward Bridge Square, adjacent to the Cannon River. Turning the corner off Division Street, the wind sliced cold across my face. I knew that exposing my fingers to snap the shutter button of my camera would be numbing. My mittens, which open to finger-less gloves, help. I’d highly recommend these if you work a camera in a cold weather environment like Minnesota.
For the next 10 minutes, while Randy walked ahead of me—I always lag when I’m photographing—I concentrated on the half-block square area around me. The signs. The buildings. A woman and her dog. The river.
In this short segment of time, I composed a short story, or at least the beginning of one. With these minimal images, I show you history, nature, voices. A glimpse in to the heart and soul of Northfield. This brings me joy, this ability to follow my passion, to share with you these visual stories through my photography.
He inspired. He uplifted. He encouraged. He used words, like those spoken in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to affect change. “I have a dream…my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Change came in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Change came in shifting attitudes and edging toward equality. Yet, we still have a long ways to go. Peaceful protests during the past year, especially, underscore the social injustice issues that still exist in our society. So do the many Black Lives Matter signs I’ve photographed in recent months.
In my own southern Minnesota community, I’ve observed, listened to, read of the challenges our Somali immigrant families face. In language barriers. In educational disparity. In housing. In prejudice. Many organizations, like the Faribault Diversity Coalition, local churches, schools, St. Vincent de Paul, government agencies and more, are reaching out, helping, supporting. For that I feel grateful.
But we also need to step up individually—speaking up, for example, when we hear derogatory remarks about our new neighbors or anyone of color. I admit to not always voicing my objections, although I often do.
I regret not speaking to a young man who, for months, flew a Confederate flag (along with an American flag) on the back of his pick-up truck. I worried how he would react if I approached him. Thankfully, he eventually removed this blatant public symbol of hatred/racism. I was relieved. Still, the root issues remain. And, as troubling as this Confederate flag was to me, I can only imagine how disconcerting, threatening and offensive this felt to anyone of color in my community.
Yes, much still remains to be accomplished. But we have made progress. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr set us on the course nearly 70 years ago as did others in the Civil Rights Movement. A peaceful course. As one coming of age in the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, I gravitated to the word peace. It was everywhere, especially in the peace symbol. Many decades later, I still hold that word close to my heart. Peace. Just give peace a chance.
In the words of King: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
And more inspiring words from this Nobel Peace Prize winner and Civil Rights Movement leader: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
FYI: The Faribault Diversity Coalition celebrates its 7th annual Martin Luther King Day Breakfast with a virtual event from 9 – 10 am today. Click here for details. In neighboring Northfield, the Human Rights Commission will hold a virtual event themed to “In This Together” at 7 pm. Click here for info.
RIVERS, STRONG AND MIGHTY, flow through our state. The Mississippi. The Minnesota. And here in my county of Rice, the Cannon and Straight Rivers.
Here, on these waters, early inhabitants traveled via canoe, traded along river banks, built flour and woolen mills. And formed communities like Faribault, Northfield, Dundas and Morristown, all with waterways that run through.
Rivers are as much about nature as they are about our history. Like railroads, they helped to shape our towns and cities. And today, while no longer of the same utilitarian use, they remain valuable assets.
I am naturally drawn to water, as I expect many of you are. There’s something about water—its power, its motion, its almost hypnotic quality, its soothing sound when rushing over rocks. It’s like poetry flowing into the land.
Even in the depth of winter, a river—whether iced over or still running—draws me near. To listen, like poetry read aloud. To view, like words of verse written upon paper. To photograph, like an artist and poet and writer who cares. And I do.
To walk or pause beside a river is to appreciate art and history and nature. I feel connected to the rivers that trace like poetry through the landscape of southern Minnesota. My home. My place of peace and contentment when I walk beside the waters therein.
TELL ME: Do you have a favorite river? If so, please share why you appreciate this waterway.