Swedish Church turns 110 years old

Scott Wagar


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Editor’s Note: The Bottineau Courant is conducting a series on the history of the Swedish Zion Lutheran Church due to the church’s 110th Anniversary, and the structure being named to the National Register of Historic Places. This week, the Courant looks at the construction of the interior of the church.

In 1903, the cornerstone for the Swedish Zion Lutheran Church was mortared into the top of the stone wall on the right hand side of the front entrance marking the nearing of the completion date of the outside of Swedish Church. Once the roof was on, carpenters begin their spiritual passage with their hands and eyes in bringing the inside of the church rich in simple, but detailed design.

The primary carpenter for the stone church was John Anderson and Martin Ohman. According to “The People of Bottineau County” these two men played important roles in creating the Swedish Church.

“John Oscar Anderson, J.O., was born in Sweden in 1865. He came to America and Joliet, Ill., in 1888. He learned carpentry as an apprentice in Sweden and continued it in Joliet. He went to night school to learn the new language,” stated The People of Bottineau County. “In Sweden he had courted Anna Sventesson and upon accepting America as his new home, he asked her to join him here. They were married in Joliet in 1893 and set up housekeeping in the home he had built for them.

“J.O. preceded his family to North Dakota. In March of 1903 he sent for them and they came by train to Souris. Their introduction to North Dakota was cold winter weather. Their first home was a small one room house.” added The People of Bottineau County. In the pioneer days, Anna Anderson was often called to perform midwife duties. John Oscar for many years was the Scandia Township clerk. He built many homes in the area. He and Martin Ohman, in 1903, were to do most of carpentry in the building of the Swedish Lutheran Church (the Old Stone Church) northeast of Souris. He was to discover his first love was carpentry – not farming.”

Ohman seems to be lost in the history books of Bottineau County. Little is known about the man. In U.S. Census of 1900 there is only one Martin Ohman  registered in Bottineau County. The census states that Ohman came to America from Sweden; immigrated to the U.S. in 1888; was 31 years old and single; made his home in the “Bottineau Village” where he was the head of his household and listed his occupations as a “farmer, contractor and builder.”

Ohman is seen again in the 1910 census; however, it appears he had fallen on hard times because he was no longer the head of his household, and he was living with a Swedish family in Bottineau. By the 1920 U.S. Census, Ohman is no longer listed in Bottineau County and disappears from the county’s record books.

Although no documentation list this Martin Ohman to the Swedish Church, more than likely he is the man who worked with Anderson doing the carpentry work at the church.  

As for the carpentry work, Martin and Ohman left an immortal legacy for themselves when conducting the carpentry work on the stone church.

A century after using their talents and skills with hammers and saws, individuals to the Swedish church can still see the two men’s work in strong and sturdy form.

When church members entered into the church, they walked into a small, but eloquent narthex from the east side. Members had little room to stand in the narthex because it takes only a few steps to enter into the nave-sanctuary as the narthex is part of the base of the square and octagon tower and steeple.

The congregation would entered into the nave through swing doors, which hold special hinges to allow individuals to go through the doors in either direction, but automatically closes on its own.

According to Gene Wunderlich, author of Stone Church: A Prairie Parable, the nave was constructed in such a size to accommodate the size of the church membership.

“The inside length of the nave, accounting for the thick walls, is only a bit more than 35 feet. The inside width is about 23 and a half feet. The interior ceiling at nave center rises to a height of 16 feet, where there is a flat center section three feet wide. The ceiling makes a slight hip break about halfway down toward the wall,” Wunderlich said. “Then, on the south and north sides of the sanctuary, the ceiling meets the wall at about 10 feet up. The hips and flat center ceiling section suggest careful roof trussing to bolster the long straight line span on the outside supporting the shingled exterior of the roof. The high, open ceiling is an elegant but modest effect befitting pioneer parishioners.

“Its layout, similar to many small Protestant churches, was suited to simple worship. In concept, the one-room church had much in common with the one-room school. The one-room church placed pastor, elders, youth and whole families in one confine, together in word and light,” Wunderlich added.

Anderson and Ohman with the carpenters who assisted them placed five foot trim with wainscoting, stain and varnish around the walls which Wunderlich stated that it assisted the “warmth of the wooden pews.”

The pews consisted of two banks of nine-foot pews with nine rows on the left side and seven rows on the right. There were only seven rows of the right hand side because an 1889 Cole Hot Blast potbellied stove was placed to heat the church, the only heat ever provided in the Swedish Church.

The stove is vented simply, without apology, high along the wall (from back to front), then to a chimney above the altar (at the center front),” Wuderlich said. “The church was never electrified. Ten widows admit abundant day time light and kerosene lamps provide evening light.

“Through the windows, the architecture capture the wishes of a people who admire light straight from God, or nature if you prefer, without the artistic clutter of stained glass in leaded outline,” Wunderlich continued to state. “The wood frame windows, about two by eight feet, are topped with a Roman-style pointed arch.”

The windows were set in the stone close to the outside wall, granting deep window sills on the inside of church for individuals to casually sit in or to be utilized for decorations during the different Christian holidays observed by the Swedish people.

From the wainscoting, the walls inside the sanctuary were covered with light purple medallion wallpaper. The wallpaper extended throughout the ceiling which at the base of ceiling the wallpaper becomes a light gray color filled with stars across the ceiling, no doubt granting a subtle celestial appearance during nighttime services with the kerosene lamps flickering throughout the church.
The west of the church holds an open chancel which rises above the main floor about four inches and holds the altar, pulpit and organ.

The altar is white, highlighted in gold pin stripes and holds six spires (three on each side) with a white Apostles’ Cross at the pinnacle of the altar piece. The Apostles’ Cross, also known as the Treflee, Botonee or Cathedral Cross, holds three circles at the end of each arm of the cross and symbolizes the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The center of the altar piece holds a depiction of Heinrich Hofmann’s Christ in Gethsemane, which was a gift to the Swedish Church by a family member of one of the early church member.    
The altar is enclosed with a semi-circular wood railing in front with an attached kneeler. The piece is lighted by natural light coming from the windows of the stone church, lighting the altar from different angles during the day and the different seasons that abound in North Dakota.

The organ and pulpit add to the graceful straightforwardness of the chancel.

“The Moline reed organ is a small, foot pedaled instrument, still operational, played by the few organists capable of managing its stops, keys and pedals,” Wunderlich said. “The set-up, dark wood octagonal pulpit is plain. It is a simple platform, screen and lectern resting on the southern side of the chancel.”   

Today, like its past, the church still captures the hearts of its members and their very down to earth pioneer ways.

With the dignify hands and insightful eyes of Anderson and Ohman and their crew, they brought elegant refinement to the inside of the Swedish Church, which was humble, but commanding in their reverence for God.

With the Swedish Zion Lutheran Church’s construction completed, the church members moved in and began to serve Christ; and, their service to God  would be a awarding adventure like the construction of the church, itself.

Writer’s Note: Next week the Bottineau Courant will look at the congregation of the Swedish Zion  Lutheran Church and the service to God the members conducted within the church. References for this article include Gene Wunderlich’s “Stone Church: A Prairie Parable,” “The People of Bottineau County,” The Bottineau Courant and the U.S. Census for the years of 1900 and 1910.