LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.Little Town on the Prairie. Both are familiar to fans of author Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote books by those titles. But what about Love in the Prairie? Ah, not so familiar.
You’ll find Love in the Prairie outside B to Z Hardware Store. An oversized Sweethearts candy box. A Prison of Love. Spots to cuddle with your sweetheart on a sofa or bench. A kissing booth. Photo cut-outs to pretend you are Danny or Sandy from the musical Grease. Lots and lots of fun photo ops.
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.
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.
Ah, what a message, one that, in these turbulent times, seems difficult to follow. Or even consider. Yet, focusing on the positives and joys in life feels more important than ever right now. Not that we should ignore the challenges—and there are many today—but rather balance them with also viewing the bright side of life.
Don’t worry, be happy. Those words from the 1988 hit song by Bobby McFerrin make me smile all these years later. At the cheesy simplicity. At the thought that we can focus on the light of happiness even in the worries of darkness.
With that, I shift to a series of photos I took in downtown Le Sueur in late August 2020. I typically fall behind in posting my images given all I shoot during the warm weather months here in Minnesota. Regardless, this seems the right time to pull these photos from the archives and share a bit of “happy.”
And so, while walking through the heart of downtown Le Sueur, I came across the vacant Le Sueur Theater and its once beautiful marquee. I remember photographing this theater previously and lamenting its abandonment. But then, while researching for this post, I discovered a reason to feel happy. Thankful, really.
Leading the project is Katie Elke of Le Sueur, who bought the building in 2016 and plans to reopen the theater for cinema, music, theatrical performances, comedy shows and other entertainment, making it a community gathering spot.
I love this plan. This idea. I’ve watched as my own community of Faribault restored an historic theater into the Paradise Center for the Arts, a center for arts, entertainment and more. That the good folks of Le Sueur and the surrounding area will now have a similar hub makes me happy. I recognize that this happens only with plenty of funding (Katie started a go fund me site), hard work and enthusiastic support. Some day I hope to step inside the restored Le Sueur Theater and show you how a plan, along with grit, determination, effort, money and a whole lot of happy can take an idea to reality. Even, and especially, during a global pandemic.
WITH SNOW LAYERING the ground as I write this several days before publication and with the furnace cranking out heat to stave off the cold, warmer days seem but a distant memory. But not that long ago, on November 7 and 8, we were enjoying warm temps and sunshine here in southern Minnesota. And my photos document that.
On that recent weekend, Randy and I finished raking and hauling leaves to the compost pile on Saturday morning. Then we packed a picnic lunch with intentions of an afternoon wandering through rural Minnesota with no specific destination. One of our Sunday afternoon drives, except on a Saturday. Only briefly did we discuss staying home to wash windows. Nope, the weather was too nice and we wanted to enjoy the afternoon. In Minnesota we recognize such beautiful November days as rarities to savor in time spent outdoors. Playing, not working.
So we gased up the van and then headed south on the back county road to Medford. A few miles from Faribault, we heard a clunk and Randy realized he’d left the gas cap at the gas station. We retraced our route, retrieved the cover and restarted our leisurely drive. I was a bit irritated with the husband for forgetting the gas cap. More on that later.
By the time we reached Medford, it was past noon and we were both hungry for that picnic lunch. So we pulled into the city park along the Straight River, settled in at a picnic table inside a wind-whipped shelter and watched kids on the playground while we ate our sandwiches.
Afterward, we walked around the park for a bit, down to the banks of the Straight River, around the ballpark and then back to the van. After more photos—I can always find something interesting to photograph—we were on our way.
Except we weren’t. Two blocks from the park, the power steering went out in the van. The engine light flashed on. Gauges indicated overheating. Randy switched off the van, lifted the hood and investigated. At times like this, I am thankful for a husband who has worked as an automotive machinist for decades and is extremely knowledgeable in diagnosing and dealing with vehicle issues.
I suggested we call a tow truck. Randy insisted we could make it home to Faribault. If the engine didn’t overheat. I was skeptical. Half-way back, he noted that the engine was getting hotter. Long story, but we pulled into friends’ rural property (they weren’t home) and waited about 45 minutes for the engine to cool. Back on the road, with only miles to go, Randy cut the engine at the top of a hill. The van then coasted the final miles into Faribault. At a stop sign, Randy restarted the van to get the remaining blocks home. We made it. Who would have thought?
So much for that planned afternoon outing. Randy was now out in the garage, back under the hood, rooting out the problem. He diagnosed a broken spring inside the tensioner. That caused the belt to come loose which caused the subsequent issues. A trip to the parts store and about an hour later, he had fixed the van.
But here’s the deal. Remember that forgotten gas cap and the irritation I felt over Randy’s forgetfulness? Well, if he hadn’t left the cover, we would have been further down the road, probably to Owatonna. And those extra miles likely would not have allowed us to get the van back home on our own. So, yeah, sometimes when little things like this happen and delay our best-laid plans, it’s for a reason. Lesson learned. On a beautiful day in early November in Minnesota.