Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From small town Minnesota: Comfort on a day of mourning April 28, 2018

This banner hung in the sanctuary at my Uncle Harold’s funeral.

 

COMFORT IN SONG. Comfort in words. Comfort in family. Comfort in food. Comfort in a sense of community.

 

The one-block Main Street of downtown Vesta, Minnesota.

 

I felt comforted as I gathered with extended family and my hometown community on Thursday to mourn, and remember, my beloved Uncle Harold.

 

Floral arrangements, plants and other memorials filled the front of the church. These flowers, with an oil can incorporated, were given by my siblings and our families. The oil can recognizes Harold’s previous occupation as the owner of Harold’s Service (a gas station and garage).

 

I felt blessed, too, to congregate here in a small town church overflowing with people. It is the songs, always the songs, that touch my emotions, that bring me to tears. I struggled to sing the words to “How Great Thou Art” as row upon row upon row of extended family, including me, joined the immediate family in walking in together, behind the casket, to fill St. John’s Lutheran Church.

 

Many family photos, including one of Harold and his wife, Marilyn, graced the table as did Harold’s (presumably favorite) cap.

 

I observed that the undertakers seemed surprised at the sheer volume of Kletscher relatives. We are a large lot and we come together in times of need. Only a few of my 30-plus cousins were missing. Family is important to us. Always has been. Always will be.

 

Vesta is a close-knit farming community of about 330 in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

As I sat in a folding chair at the end of a pew, pressed to the wall, I felt the closeness of this family and community that I love. Our voices swelled, loud, to sing “Amazing Grace” and, later, “Go My Children, With My Blessing.” In those moments of song, I felt especially moved by the legacy of my forefathers who helped found this congregation. There’s something about singing traditional hymns of old that comforts me and connects me to those who went before me—on this day my uncle.

 

A snippet of the life summary Harold wrote for his family.

 

Harold left a gift for his family in the form of his life’s story scrawled onto four pages of notepad paper. The notes were found in the barn/shed behind his home after his death. I didn’t have time to completely read the life summary given the crowd and busyness of funeral day. But Harold’s youngest son has promised to send me the stories, which also mention my dad.

 

The display table showcased some of the honors Harold has garnered through the years for his service to church and to community.

 

The two brothers now lie buried near each other on a cemetery just north of Vesta. The city fire truck led the long processional from the church to the burial grounds as an honor to Harold, a volunteer fireman of 45 years. On the hilltop cemetery, we said our final goodbyes, our final prayers, as the wind whipped and the sun shone. Standing there, I felt a sense of comfort not only in the closeness of family but in a sense of place. This is my land. These are my people. Even though I left Vesta decades ago, this still feels most like home.

When the graveside ceremony ended, I lingered with family, my heart heavy, yet my heart free. I paused at my father’s gravestone, too, and remembered him—dead 15 years now.

Back at the church, the celebration—and I intentionally choose to call this a celebration—continued with a lunch of scalloped potatoes and ham, coleslaw, slices of bread, homemade dill pickles and cupcakes served with lemonade and coffee. No Funeral Hotdish #1 or Funeral Hotdish #2, as I refer to the Reception Committee hotdishes published in the St. John’s Anniversary Cookbook of 1985. I scooped only small servings of food onto my paper plate, cognizant of the crowd to feed, and not necessarily expecting Jesus to multiply the scalloped potatoes like the fishes and loaves.

 

Harold worked as the city of Vesta maintenance engineer for many years before retiring at age 70.

 

Food and conversation comforted me on this Thursday, Harold’s burial day. He would have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love—by the vehicles overflowing onto the county road beside the church, by the lines waiting to comfort his wife and children, by the raised voices singing, Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee. How great Thou art, how great Thou art.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Easter joy in a song April 1, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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THE WORDS IN THIS HYMN are my most cherished of Easter songs. For these verses I sang as a child each Easter in the balcony of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Vesta, Minnesota.

Dressed in a new cotton Easter dress, feet strapped into shiny patent leather shoes, a hat streaming ribbons down my back, I sang with enthusiasm. I know that my Redeemer lives! Loud. Joyous. From the soul.

The imprint of this hymn remains with me decades later, far removed from the church of my youth. I can still sing the words from memory. I can still feel the stiff cotton of my new dress, hear the organ music rising and falling, smell the lingering scent of cows on myself and classmates, taste the sweetness of Easter candy upon my tongue, see the temporary Easter tattoos pressed upon my arm.

In this rural church, gathered with other farm families, I celebrated Easter. Today, decades later, in Trinity Lutheran Church 120 miles to the east, I know (still) that my Redeemer lives!

TO MY DEAR READERS, may you celebrate a joyous and blessed Easter!

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I know that my Redeemer lives April 16, 2017

WE FILED INTO THE BALCONY of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Sunday School children clunking up the stairs in our shiny patent leather shoes. I felt a tinge of nervous energy fueled by too much chocolate taken from Easter baskets and eaten for breakfast.

 

My vintage 1960s purse, reclaimed years ago from my mom’s toy box.

 

I was dressed in my Easter finery—lacy anklets tucked into shiny shoes, lime green skirt skimming my knees below a sleeveless floral shirt accented by a matching lime green jacket. I carried a lime green purse. I looked as fashionable as a skinny Minnesota farm girl can in a homemade ensemble topped by an Easter hat with ribbons tailing down the back.

 

 

If my childhood Easter memories were nothing more than those of fashion and of candy, I would feel shallow and lacking in my faith. But I am thankful to have been raised in a home by loving Christian parents who got me to church every Sunday to learn of, praise and worship God. After the service, I clunked down the narrow basement stairs to Sunday School. And there I learned the song that, each Easter, I still sing from memory:

I know that my Redeemer lives! What comfort this sweet sentence gives! He lives, he lives, who once was dead; He lives my everliving head!

 

Art of the risen Lord photographed inside St. Mary’s Catholic Church, New Trier, Minnesota.

 

In the balcony of that rural Minnesota church, I sang with enthusiasm and joy of my Redeemer. Eight verses. The voices of farm girls and boys singing with such gusto. Every Easter. The words are still imprinted upon my memory more than 50 years later: I know that my Redeemer lives!

And I still sing them with joy.

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MY DEAREST READERS, may you be blessed with a joyous Easter.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Praying for the tornado survivors March 6, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:19 PM
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ON SUNDAY I ATTENDED morning worship services at Peace Lutheran Church in Echo, the sister congregation of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta, the congregation of my youth.

St. John’s members have been worshipping at Peace since a July 1, 2011, series of downbursts with wind speeds of 90 – 100 mph ripped the south roof from the sanctuary.

St. John's, hours after the July 1 storm tore through Vesta. Photo courtesy of Brian Kletscher.

Just to the north, west and east in this region of southwestern Minnesota, EF-1 tornadoes with winds of 95 – 105 mph wreaked havoc on farms and on the neighboring community of Belview.

Eight months later, St. John’s is still in the process of rebuilding.

Eight months after the storm, St. John's is still under construction with a new addition to the right. Congregants had hoped to be back in the church by Easter, but that likely will not happen until May.

The narthex was expanded and a pastor's office and handicapped accessible bathroom were added on the southwest side of the church built in 1974. This photo and the one above were taken on Saturday.

Despite the inconvenience of driving additional miles to worship and the temporary loss of their church home, St. John’s members realize the situation could have been so much worse. No lives were lost in the storms and their church could be salvaged.

This we—visitors and members of the two sister congregations—understood as we bowed our heads to pray for the survivors of the recent deadly tornadoes.

© Copyright 2012 by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The armless Jesus at storm-damaged St. John’s in Vesta August 4, 2011

THE ARMLESS JESUS stood there, shoved into the back corner against a desk in the dark fellowship hall packed with misplaced pews.

That’s when I panicked, thought for a moment that Jesus had lost his arms in the July 1 storm, until I realized his appendages had been removed, not broken.

To the right in this photo, stands Jesus. His arms were removed and lie behind him on a desk.

The statue of Christ has been my greatest concern ever since a series of downbursts with winds of 90 – 100 mph ripped half the roof from St. John’s Lutheran Church, exposing the sanctuary and Jesus to the heavens.

One month after that strong windstorm, I returned to my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota and viewed the damage I’d only seen in photos. The town looks better than I’d feared, although I’m certain if I’d been there right after the storm, I wouldn’t be writing that.

St. John's, hours after the July 1 storm with half of the south roof ripped off by high winds. The roof fell against and cracked the bell tower, which has since been taken down. Photo courtesy of Brian Kletscher.

It’s the damage to St. John’s that I knew would impact me the most emotionally. My worries centered on that Jesus statue, the single remaining visual reminder of the old 1900 church building across town where I was baptized and confirmed and worshipped for the first 18 years of my life. In May of 1982, I was married in the new brick church built in 1974.

Jesus, who once blessed us with outstretched arms from the altar of the old church, was alright. For that I was thankful.

As St. John’s members await word from an engineer on whether the damaged building is structurally-sound or will need to be demolished, they are attending their sister church, Peace Lutheran, in Echo seven miles to the north.

That seems to be working for now. But come winter, when travel can sometimes be difficult and dangerous on the southwestern Minnesota prairie due to blowing snow, options to worship in Vesta may need to be considered. Or maybe not. Pastor Dale Schliewe doesn’t expect the church to be rebuilt by the time the snow flies.

Right now, though, church members are more concerned about getting the building process started. That could include an expansion.

No matter what ultimately happens, this congregation remains a thriving one, attended by many members of my extended family. My great grandfather, Rudolph Kletscher, helped found St. John’s. The first church service was held in his home one mile east of Vesta.

My emotional attachment to this congregation runs deep, rooted in that legacy of faith passed from generation to generation.

I understand that a building does not comprise a church. Yet, when I walked into the empty sanctuary of St. John’s, gazed upward at the tarp covering the missing roof, saw the splintered wood, walked around the pews jammed into the fellowship hall, noticed Jesus standing armless in the corner, spotted the hymnals stacked on a kitchen counter and skirted the pile of debris in the church parking lot, my soul ached.

Inside the sanctuary, you see the damage to the roof, now covered by a tarp. To the right, a stained glass cross centers the worship area in this photo shot at an angle.

One month after the storm, the south side of the roof is covered with a tarp.

A debris pile on the edge of the parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof and brick from the bell tower.

Another angle of that debris pile shows uprooted trees and, to the east, a house which was damaged.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

One year short of three decades May 15, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:52 PM
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ON THIS DATE 29 years ago, I married my sweetheart.

And, yes, May 15, 1982, was also opening weekend of fishing. And, yes, several guests did not attend because they chose to go fishing. Others were in the field.

Here our wedding guests are pelting us with rice as we exit St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta. (For those of you unfamiliar with Vesta, pull out your Minnesota map, focus on the southwestern corner of the state, zero in on State Highway 19 and you’ll find this small town between Redwood Falls and Marshall.)

In this church congregation (different building) where I was baptized and confirmed, Randy and I exchanged our wedding vows. (My glasses really were that gigantic and we really did look that young and skinny.)

During the reception at the community hall, we were whisked away for awhile to the municipal liquor store across the street. Then, later, after supper, we danced the night away with family and friends.

Today we celebrated by shopping at a home improvement store. Pretty pathetic, huh?

Not too worry, we’re also planning to dine out. And even if we weren’t, the most important part of every anniversary for the past two decades and nine years has been that I am with my husband.

I have one question, though: How did nearly 30 years pass so quickly?

© Text Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo by Williams Studio of RedwoodFalls