The Stone Ruins of Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Saskatchewan

Built circa 1906. Closed in 1935.

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All stone churches and schools are beautiful to photograph. We see them on the sides of country roads and wonder “who were the people who built that structure”, and perhaps “why is it empty now?” Come with me now and we’ll do some digging into the pages of time by brushing the dust off of the local history books, to see who built Bethlehem Lutheran Church and why it is now in ruins

Some old churches seem to have an enduring quality that allows them to go on and on. Then there are others that, for a variety of possible reasons, don’t last as a functioning organization for very long at all. Bethlehem Lutheran fits into that latter category. Services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church began on April 22, 1906. The stone church was probably not built in 1906 because the local history book says “Pastor Schmidt held services in a farm house on the same quartersection that the Bethlehem Church was built on“. Pastor Schmidt was the church’s second pastor so why would he hold services in a farm house unless the stone church hadn’t been completed yet? The book went on to say that “in 1908 Rev. Schmidt accepted a call and left for the United States“. Many pastors came and went after a year or maybe two so in 1912 the congregation decided to form a parish on their own. Things seemed to be going well for the church but then the congregation realized that their church was not growing while the pews of the two other nearby Lutheran churches were filling up each Sunday. Those were the very churches that Bethlehem helped to get started by sharing their pastor. The following quote describes it well:

In 1912 the Bethlehem congregation decided to form a parish alone and retained Pastor Rotermund as its pastor. He organized a thriving Christian day school at Bethlehem. Pastor Rotermund then left Bethlehem and Rev. Renner came as pastor. He also maintained the Christian Day School until government intervention at the beginning of the first World War caused the school to close. Pastor Renner then left and Rev. Arthur Preisinger came in 1916. In 1918 he left Bethlehem and later died in the flu epidemic near Chicago, Illinois.

Bethlehem, being the mother church of the Southey area, built up a fine church property, but it ceased to grow in numbers. The house of worship was constructed entirely of stone and it was well-furnished inside. Because of its solid construction, it could not be moved to the village of Markinch where there were good prospects for future existence and blessed church activity. Another Synod began to hold services in Markinch.

Due to automobiles making travel easier, the inevitable result was that in 1935 Bethlehem had to close its fine church, sell its parsonage and dissolve. The church pews and other church articles were divided between Emmanuel Southey and St. Mark’s, Markinch. The church property and cemetery was turned over to St. Mark’s Church as they had no cemetery of their own. Most of the members amalgamated with Emmanuel Church in Southey and others joined St. Mark’s in Markinch

Pioneers and Progress : The History of Southey and District, page 23

Student Pastor F. Schole was the second last pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. He started in 1928.

Just as the nascent church was getting settled, some of the other nearby Lutheran churches were growing and prospering due to their superior location in or near a town. The mother church of the area was being surpassed by her children. So why had Bethlehem stopped growing? There are probably several reasons. The thirties were known for the drought and the great depression and that may have pushed some people off the land and further north and west where the drought wasn’t as much of an issue. Bethlehem Lutheran likely suffered from a variety of problems – depressed economy, drought, urbanization, the automobile – and perhaps even language. The congregations children would be educated in English and may have become more comfortable with English than German causing them to attend one of the other churches as they became adults. Unique to Bethlehem is that most of the problems that other prairie churches experienced didn’t result in abandoned buildings until the mid-1950s, and yet in 1935 Bethlehem Lutheran Church could not go on. This makes me wonder if there wasn’t some other problem that caused them to close so early, especially since they seemed to have been doing so well. We’ll probably never know what else influenced the decision to close this church. What ever the reason, the church closed and nothing I’ve read suggests that it was ever used again.

Never again will the stone walls echo the sounds of the congregation singing old hyms in their native German tongue. If you walked by the church in the 1920s you might have heard hymns like the one below.

Gott ist die Liebe, lässt mich erlösen, Gott is die Liebe, Er liebt auch mich.

Drum sag ich noch einmal: Gott ist die Liebe! Gott ist die Liebe, Er liebt auch mich.

Click here to listen to the above in German (skip the ad before the music)

If we assume that the church was built in 1906 (see above as I think that 1908 is more likely) and it closed in 1935, this beautiful stone church was only in use for 29 years, and probably less. The local history book is silent about what happened after 1935. I’ve read comments from some people saying that it was purposely burned down to prevent vandalism. A more likely explanation is from an individual who has commented on a number of blogs and photos. His name is Kenton de Jong from Regina. I don’t know if he has access to information that others don’t have access to or how he came to know how the ruins ended up like they are but his explanation does sound more plausible than that the church was burned down to prevent vandalism. This is what he said:

“Here is when two stories diverge. According to one source, it was at this time a decision was made to destroy the church. The source says that the former congregation did not want to see their beautiful church fall into ruin from vandals, so they took its fate into their own hands. They torched the building to the ground, with the stone frame acting like an oven, incinerating everything and anything left inside.

The other story is less dramatic but still ended with a fire. Following the gutting of the church, the building fell into ruin. Vandals broke the windows, water seeped into the roof, and pigeons took roost inside its hallowed shell. By the late 1960s, Bethlehem Lutheran Church had become “more like a chicken coop than a church”, and it was decided to salvage what they could of it. They removed any remaining wood, retrieved a Bible from the cornerstone – which explains why the cornerstone is missing – and decided to tear the roof down and light the remains on fire. It was too expensive to save Bethlehem Lutheran Church, impossible to move it and it was too sad to see it fall to ruin.

Whatever the story, a fire was set, and the church burned, leaving a ghostly stone ruin behind.”

Kenton de Jong (see citation below)

Actually the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. By the late 1960s it was clear that the church wouldn’t be used again and repairs would be too costly. Their solution was to remove what could be reused and burn the rest so that only the stone walls would remain. That’s why the photos below show only the stone walls.

Photographs

Bethlehem Lutheran Church

If you read my previous blog about the two stone houses, you’ll remember that there are different styles of stone structures. Some stone buildings, usually worked on by a skilled stone mason, have carefully sized and cut stones. Other types have a very random collection of stones of various sizes. This structure appears to be somewhat better than the random stone walls because the stones are sized very similarly. Also the circular windows at each end show a bit of flair so this wasn’t built to minimum standards.

The front door. You can see the cracks in the wall so the top gable may soon be a pile of stones.
The back and side view.
A view from the side where the trees are standing.
The church ruins with the cemetery in the background. It looks like there are two people in the cemetery but those are tall tombstones not people.
The view from the cemetery looking back toward the church ruins.
Bethlehem Lutheran Church
I’m not sure if this is a photo or a drawing of the church as it once looked. Image from Rootsweb.com

The stone structure that was Bethlehem Lutheran Church existed for a very short time, around 29 years. Now it is a prairie sentinel standing guard over the history of a community of German immigrants. It’s still a beautiful structure, although not in the way that the congregation intended when it was built.

Citations

If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.

Frank Korvenmaker has a number of copies of the book Legacy of Worship for sale. They retail at $40 (plus tax) in bookstores, if available. He is selling them at $25 (no tax), plus shipping, usually in the $15-$20 range. For any person or group wanting to buy books in bulk, he is selling them for $10 per book on orders of 10 copies or more. Pick-up of bulk orders may be arranged between the the buyer and Frank in Regina for those who may be passing through. Email Frank Korvenmaker at fkorvemaker@accesscomm.ca for details and to discuss shipping. I receive no commission or other remuneration for assisting Frank to sell this book.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church

14 thoughts on “The Stone Ruins of Bethlehem Lutheran Church

  1. Such a shame that the structure would be gutted by fire, no matter the reasons behind it. I understand them doing that, but on the other hand it’s so very sad. Interesting to compare the stonework used in this church with the houses you featured in the previous post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s sad indeed. It’s especially sad that there are no published photos of the old church from when it was intact. I know that photos were not so common back then as they were in the late century but I couldn’t find any. Perhaps someone has one in with their family photos that will eventually be made public.

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  2. Some of my relatives are buried there ; Last name of Krienke it near the front of grave yard.
    Thank you for share this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m always happy to hear from people who have a personal connection to a place that I wrote about. Thanks for commenting Leanne.

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  3. I really like how you included links to music and to another blog about the history of this structure. Great, haunting photography – again! Thanks, Glen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Lori. I appreciate the comment. 🙂

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  4. BugsandYellowRugs October 1, 2021 — 11:14 am

    I visited this wonderful place with Susan last Christmas on the most bitterly cold day you could imagine. I must return in better conditions. Fascinating research, Glen.
    It is one of those places that you can’t take a bad picture of.
    @bugsandyellowrugs

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting Chris. The unique history of this church has given photographs a unique structure.

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  5. Ein schöner Beitrag, gerne gelesen. Danke!

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    1. Thank you Sandra. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Danke Sandra. Ich bin froh, dass es Ihnen gefallen hat.

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    1. Did you write a blog about these ruins too? I’d be interested in reading that. Can you give me a link to your blog post?

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  6. A beautiful example of what faith can build. Like many buildings and towns in Saskatchewan, many were built in the wrong place and over time, were abandoned. The remnants make gorgeous photographs Glen. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one is special as stone buildings always look special. Thanks for commenting Allan.

      Liked by 1 person

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