The Sun Set on Bethel Church

Saskatchewan

What do the outlaw Jessie James, Saskatchewan, sunsets, a Lutheran Church, and paint have in common? All that and more in today’s blog post.


Bethel Lutheran Church

It was close to 8:00 pm when we arrived to photograph this old church at the end of March, 2021. I considered giving up on it because the light was fading fast and it was a cold evening. I continued because there was still potential for good photographs. A tripod and long exposures can squeeze amazing images out of the last smidgen of that fading light.

We arrived to an eerie scene. An abandoned church and a graveyard were just a short distance off the road. A huge snowdrift from a late season snowfall still blocked the gateway entrance even though there was just a little snow on the grounds around the church itself. It was as if the old church was trying to block our way in. My wife wisely remained in the warm vehicle while I trudged out into the cold night air. The cold snow filled my boots as I stepped through the deep snowdrift in order to get close enough to photograph the old church. My feet immediately felt the bite of the cold and wet snow but I knew that once we were finished there would be warm hotel room in Swift Current waiting for us. At the time we were there I wondered if the images would be worth the discomfort and wet boots.

This will help you get oriented as to where Bethel is located.

When we arrived I could barely make out what that large mound was next to the church. Eventually I guessed that it was the steeple that blew off the church over the winter. This was a tough winter for people, animals and old churches. The steeple left a large opening in the roof which is now one more place for the spring rains and many birds to enter.

The best place to stand was behind the church so that both the church and the sunset would be in the image. This also positioned me well to hear the unusually loud creaks and bangs emanating from the void in the darkness that was Bethel Prairie Lutheran Church.

This snowdrift reached from the thick shrubs on both sides of the gateway. It was deeper than it first looked so I tried to cross the drift close to the shrubs. The snow still filled my boots and making my feet wet and cold. I hadn’t planned for this in late March.

Some local history

It was many months after photographing the old church that I was able to get my hands on a local history book through library interbranch transfers. The quote shown below is from that book and describes the construction of the church.

Construction began in 1926.  Each and every person who was able to use a saw, hammer or whatever, helped with the building.  Lumber was hauled from Success by truck and wagons with two and four horse teams. The altar and ring, pulpit and baptismal font were built by Knut Hungnes.  The outside of the building was painted by Mr. Ole Gilbertson, then in his sixties – and all done by hand.  The first service and confirmation were held on August 21, 1927.  Until 1927 instruction for confirmation was given in Norwegian.  This was gradually phased out until 1929 when only English was used.   

Memories to Cherish, Stewart Valley and Leinan. Page 104

Many Lutheran churches were built in the early century in this part of Saskatchewan. I don’t know if the high number of church buildings was because the churches were full with large congregations or it was just due to the the logistics of how far a family could travel by horse or ox cart on a Sunday morning. In time the local Lutherans would have to rationalize the number of individual churches. That time came in 1959 for Stewart Valley. There were a number of meetings to find answers to the difficult questions of how to reduce the number of separate churches because it was too expensive to maintain each of them. Kyle Parish, West Prairie, Bethel and Nordland, were all being served by Kyle parish Pastors. The connection between most of these churches severed in 1959.

  • Nordland Lutheran Church began in 1911 as an affiliate of the Norwegian Lutheran Free Church. They met in Hovdestad School and homes until 1921. In that year work began on digging a basement for a church. Young and old congregants worked long hours with a pick and shovel to dig out the basement which was completed in the fall. They used the basement for the church until 1940 (nearly 20 years!) when the funds became available to finish the church. In 1959 they could no longer share a pastor with Kyle Parish so they continued on their own until circa 1984. No pastors were hired after that year. Nordland might still be occasionally used for weddings and funerals.
  • West Prairie congregation was formed in 1915 as an affiliate of the Norwegian Church of America. In 1937 there was a total crop failure in the immediate area (and probably all over the southern part of Saskatchewan). The crop failure left the farmers with a lot of spare time on their hands which they used to build a church. They bought Sharpes Hardware Store for $203 and either remodeled it into a church or reused the lumber for a church.
  • Bethel Lutheran Church details are shown as a quote earlier in this post. It didn’t state clearly when the church was first organized but from the information provided I believe it was in 1909. The building was constructed in 1926. In 1959 they could no longer share a pastor with Kyle Parish so Bethel Lutheran Church and cemetery joined with West Prairie Church. The two separate churches ceased to exist and a new church called Bethel Prairie continued at the Bethel Lutheran Church building (they may have even rotated between this building and the West Prairie Building for a while).
  • Bethel Prairie Lutheran Church is the new church formed by joining Bethel and West Prairie Lutheran Churches. In 1976 they voted to hold services in the United Church in Stewart Valley. After that both church buildings were closed permanently. In 1980 arrangements were made with the Swift Current Agricultural and Exhibition Association to move the old West Prairie Church building to Doc’s Town, Heritage Village in Kinetic Park to be preserved. It was moved on May 8, 1981. Bethel Prairie congregation was dissolved in 1984.

So the church that I photographed was built in 1926, changed their name in 1959-1960, and the building was closed in 1976 followed by the congregation dissolving in 1984. This old church building has been standing empty for as long as it’s been in use.

The historic images below show the three churches. The main building for purposes of this blog is Bethel Lutheran Church. That is the one I visited on that cold March evening in 2021. The steeple you see in the black and white image was blown off in a storm. You can tell which church it is which by counting the three side windows, or by the differences in the front steps. Bethel has the tall concrete sides to the concrete steps.

The images below were taken by me on March 30, 2021. These images are of the original Bethel Lutheran Church.

Does the church have eyes that watch for intruders?
The cemetery at the Bethel Lutheran Church site is still in use.

Photographer and blog reader Lori Roe-Tedrick, reached out to provide a photo of Bethel Lutheran Church showing it before the steeple blew off. Below is her photo, which she captured in 2003. Lori’s family has deep roots in this area.

Bethel Church with the steeple. Image used with permission from photographer Lori Roe-Tedrick

Ole Gilbertson

Ole Gilbertson was one of those interesting people that I often discover when I dig a little deeper into the history of a place. Most of the people connected with the churches described here came to Saskatchewan from Norway and that includes Ole Gilbertson. He was born in 1864 and his parents brought him to Minnesota at the age of two. Ole married 16 year old Carolina from Wisconsin, in 1882 at Elbow Lake, Minnesota. Ole and Carolina had 4 children, Evelyn 1893, Nellie 1897, Mervin 1903 and Bertha 1908. Sadly, Carolina died while helping with the flu epidemic in 1918.

Ole Gilbertson had two brothers, Nick and Edwin and three sisters, Annie Mary and Lena. Ole came to Canada with Nick and Annie in 1920. This is the same Ole Gilbertson – mentioned in the quote earlier in this post – who painted the outside of Bethel Lutheran Church by hand when he was in his sixties. He must have been an especially hardy fellow. Did anyone else pick-up the paintbrush after Ole died in 1945?

If you recall in the introduction to this blog post I mentioned Jessie James. Here is where the famous American outlaw enters the story.

Ole often told stories about the USA.   A young girl was playing in the street and had lost a dime.  She was crying, a man walked up to her and asked what was wrong.  She told him she had lost her money so he took 50 cents from his pocket and gave it to her.   He told her to go home and tell her folks that she had met Jessie James.  

Ole also told the story of being in a hotel with his step brother John Bergen, when Jessie James and his gang robbed the bank across the street from the hotel. 

Memories to Cherish, Stewart Valley and Leinan, pages 392-393

Wrap-up

Ole and Caroline Gilbertson are long gone as are their children. The church is empty except for those creatures that contribute to the eerie sounds at night. With the steeple gone the roof will likely be next and then the rains that make the farmers smile will accelerate the decay. It had a good run of being used for 50 years and is still standing after nearly 100 years. Nothing lasts forever.

Citations

If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old and 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.

25 thoughts on “The Sun Set on Bethel Church

  1. You really nailed it with the sunset photos, especially the cemetery one! I would say it’s in my top 5 favourites! And, the history is awesome, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Rebecca. I guess it was worth getting all that snow in my boots after all.

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  2. Oh, yeah, the lighting was perfect Glen. Glad you persevered. Too bad these old buildings are allowed to decay, but they do make nice subjects for prairie photos. Cheers. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Allan. Feet eventually warm up so yes it was worth it in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Glen. Your photos are beautiful and very moving. We’ve had the pleasure of driving here and there across Saskatchewan – but in some very pleasant summer weather. I hope your boots are dry now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Lillie. My boots have indeed dried out. It was a small price to pay for the opportunity to photograph the old church.

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  4. I have to say that you’re dedicated if you waded through that snow to get photos….brrrrr. They made the trip worthwhile though. I guess carrying an extra pair of boots and warm socks might be a good idea!
    (ps – you might be interested in seeing the beginnings of the landscape on my blog in tomorrow’s post)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What’s the title of the post? I’m out of town and without WiFi (but with wife). I’ll look forward to reading it when I get home or maybe sooner if I get a chance. I’m in Medicine Hat for a few days. I brought my mother done here to visit with her sister as she can’t go on her own anymore. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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      1. The first post about it is here….. https://magpiesmumblings.blogspot.com/2022/03/getting-back-to-it.html There will be several more posts as I go along with it.

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  5. By identifying the legacies of those who so strongly connect to these churches, you seem to make these abandoned structures come alive. I feel the same when I examine those who trod so famously on great battlefields like Gettysburg and Shiloh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you US F Man. I usually am able to find interesting characters in the local history books.

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      1. Thanks for the idea for characters.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I am impressed by the thoroughness of your posts and how you make the history come alive by finding human focal points to tell the stories. Bernie oh and I love the sunset photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Bernie. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I enjoy looking for the human element in old structures.

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      1. It’s the stories that the buildings tell isn’t it? It’s easy to get hooked. I guess that’s why we own an old house! Bernie

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Perhaps. I wanted an old house but ended up getting a new one 25 years ago as I didn’t know if I was up to the extra maintenance of an old house. It turned out that new houses need a lot of repairs too, maybe even more.

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      3. Ah old houses are a lot of work. That’s how I started blogging and that blog is still active as we have never finished the projects! Allan (who I found your site through) has read his entire way through that site which is quite a feat as it’s been an active blog since 2006.

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      4. Where is your Blog Bernie? Is it here on WordPress?

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      5. Yes it is. I have 3 actually but the house one can be found at 1918eatonseager.wordpresa.com

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  7. My husband and I were married in the steps of the Bethel Church in 2011. Thank you for the history on it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Brandy for taking the time to comment. I always enjoy hearing from people who have a connection to the subjects of my blog posts. Even though the church was closed when you got married, you’re part of its history now.

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  8. Terry. Shumaker June 21, 2022 — 9:19 pm

    I attended that church with my family from the time I was born until it closed. The inside was beautiful ! Knut Hugness did an amazing job of building the altar, the baptismal font and the pulpit! There was a picture of Jesus in the front . The pews were awesome too! I have many memories of church suppers and bingos there too……… vacation bible school too in the summer. It was an active church ! My Grandpa John Eidem , was involved with the building of the church as well as lots of neighbors . We just attended a funeral there last week in the.graveyard!!! Thanks so much for the beautiful pictures… they brought back so many memories! Terry Shumaker (Moen)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Terry. It’s wonderful to hear from someone who has first-hand knowledge of the church. I’m sure it must have been beautiful inside. If you have any inside photos that you would be willing to share, I would be happy to insert them into the blog post. If not, that’s fine too. Thanks again for commenting.

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      1. I might be able to find some ………… my mom is almost 98 and her father was one of the builders of the church . I will see if she has some ! Thanks so much for taking such an interest in it !!!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s great to hear. If you find them I will make some suggestions on the best way to send them. Together we’ll make this post on Bethel much better than it is now, and hopefully a fitting record of what it meant to the many people who were connected to the church and community.

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