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.
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.
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.
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 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.
- Memories to Cherish, Stewart Valley and Leinan, 1987 Stewart Valley – Leinan History Book Committee, Friesen Printers Altona, Manitoba.
- Find-A-Grave Website: Ole Gilbertson (1864-1945) – Find a Grave Memorial
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.