The endless prairie all around is so bereft of people and buildings today that coming up on St. Stephenie Scandinavian Church from any direction is a resounding joy, even though the old church is but a shell of its former self. It’s hard to imagine the neighborhood teeming with Danes and Bohemians and Virginians, a Great Plains melting pot, each family – eleventy-seven kids too – trying to make a go of it on 80 acres. There had to be a time out here, maybe early June evenings, when a person could stand beside the old church and hear the music of children’s voices rising from homesteads miles around. Nothing stops sound on an inland sea.
The armor St. Stephenie wears these days – all metal sides and roof – preserves the place at minimum cost right here; it stands on the property where the church has stood since 1927, the year a tornado blew away its predecessor. If, these days, there’s anything at all inside the old church, you’d have to ask some local rancher, because St. Stephenie’s steel wardrobe appears not to have left a door. Its testimony as a house of worship is little more than a telling silhouette against a broad sky just as wide as the horizon.
No one gets inside anymore. Worship’s been silenced long, long ago. What few agribusiness men and women remain on the land raise much smaller families on thousands and thousands of acres. But the Dane Church, as it’s still called, stays where it’s been, suited up dutifully against the elements, just across the road from its own cemetery.
St. Stephenie’s was a Lutheran congregation, built on land owned by Yance Sorensen, whose big, square-shouldered stone stands up front proudly, the most prominent monument in the cemetery. When I stepped out of the car and saw that stone, I couldn’t help thinking I was being watched. I meant no harm.
Sorensen insisted, even though he would be “AT REST” here, that the world remember, as he obviously didn’t want to forget, that he was “Born in Norway,” as was his bride, a fact more important, it seems, than their names.
I’m way out in Willa Cather country, far southern Nebraska, a stone’s throw from Kansas, where this old church – or its predecessor – once played a role in Cather’s famous prairie saga, My Antonia.
The cemetery across the gravel road from St. Stephanie may well have been the one that refused burial to Antonia father’s family when they asked if his body could be buried just beyond its gates. Antonia’s father was Roman Catholic and he was Czech, not Danish and Lutheran; but Cather claims the man’s ethnic or religious origins were not at issue when the church refused the family’s request.
In Willa Cather’s life, Mr. Shimerda’s prototype, Francis Sadilek, who lived just up the road, shot himself dead in his own barn. For him, America didn’t fulfill the wonders of its promises. In the old country, he’d been a weaver and a musician, not a farmer; but he’d believed, all the way over on the ship, that he could farm: you put seeds in the ground and then, when the harvest is ready, you take out food – you eat potatoes or carrots or kale, and put up what’s left of the bounty in jars for winter. You chase chickens, milk a cow or two, get yourself a pair of good horses. Seemed a sure thing.
But when he got to out in Nebraska, what he’d imagined turned out not to be the way things went. In deep despair, 133 years ago he ended his own life and was buried on his own farm when the church turned the family down. Today a “Cather Country” sign marks his suicide, crooked, as if windblown. Around it stands tall weeds along the side of the road.
From miles away
Back then, St. Stephenie’s refusal would not have been horrifying. Taking one’s life meant having fallen into a despair so hopeless that people assumed its victims had willfully abandoned faith in the Lord.
They were wrong, of course, but as humans generally do, they meant well.
Still, you can imagine the hurt.
Today, clothed in alabaster, St. Stephenie Church is not a church. It’s a storage shed whose shape and proud silhouette high above the land of people it once served still feels like a blessing when you spot it a mile away.
For decades, its bell must have rung out every Sunday morning and tolled out the years for the deaths of its people. The church is way up on the shoulder of a big, strong land that’s never been easy on anyone or anything, save bison. For years, that bell had to have been heard out here for miles and miles around. For years, St. Stephenie Church created community.
And, more than once probably, broke it in pieces too.
Once upon a time St. Stephenie had windows and an altar, a baptismal font and a communion table, plus lectern or pulpit. With windows and a front door, years ago it must have seemed even more like a place of hope and grace.
But it was also a place of division, as are all of our St. Stephenies, and as we are ourselves, forever in need of grace.