Church Members Committed to Communion Near and Far | rural churches
In the beginning there were two.
Since the 1880s, Lutherans have supported two churches near the village of Storla, South Dakota, west of Mitchell. They attended youth meetings and summer picnics. They also shared the tragedy when both church buildings were blown down in a great summer storm in 1924. They both rebuilt and continued their work for another 90 years.
Today only one church remains. Knowing how far they’ve come – through storms, economic hardship, world wars and a declining rural population – members are preparing to celebrate 140 years of history at Storla Lutheran Church this summer.
“Those are our roots,” said Mary Fristad.
“It’s like the homestead,” Dennis Scott said.
Scott’s family is among those who organized the Church on April 7, 1882. His father was raised in Storla Lutheran while his mother’s family were members of the now defunct sister church Trinity, three miles to the east.
“The Storla boys would go over there and steal the Trinity girls,” he said.
Storla Church was originally located north of the village of Storla at a spot known as Jensen’s Corner. The church moved closer to the thriving community center in 1924. Two weeks after the move, on June 14th, a storm blew through and destroyed both this building and Trinity Church.
The wood was salvaged and used to build a vicarage that still stands next door. One of the other few items saved from the disaster was a large altarpiece of Jesus as a shepherd leading a flock of sheep and carrying a baby lamb in his arms, a gift from the Andrew Jensen family.
Decades later, this long-cherished focal point of the church was also lost. On May 18, 1980, the day Mount Saint Helens erupted, a fire broke out and the painting was lost.
The congregation gave a lot of thought to designing a new work of art for the altar. Fristad’s husband, Eugene, spent many nights at their dinner table getting his drawing tools from his days at the South Dakota School of Mines working, she said. The church commissioned Robert Aldren, then chairman of the art department at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, to make a metal sculpture out of it.
The sculpture has a high symbolic power. The triangular background represents the Trinity, as do the images within it: a hand for God the Father, a lamb for the Son of God, and a dove descending to represent the Holy Spirit. There are also symbols representing the sacraments of baptism and communion.
Lutheran Storla members have gone to great lengths to ensure that their church’s mission can withstand any challenges ahead. The women of the Church were particularly dutiful in this regard.
The Ladies Aid Society was founded in 1888 with the mission of running a parish school. The classes met in member Andrew Jensen’s granary over the course of a month or two, and the teacher received $15.
Women’s Aid meetings were a day-long affair, and women came on foot, on horseback, or in a wagon. According to a story compiled for the state’s bicentennial celebration, a lady walked three miles and carried her child to attend.
When the church building burned down, the women helped raise money for a new building by selling hatchery chickens and serving lunch at local auctions. By 1928 enough money had been raised. Construction began that fall, and the first service at the new Storla Lutheran Church was held on February 24, 1929 with the baptism of four babies.
The 1930s were tough as crops failed and the economy faltered. The pastor’s salary was cut by a third, and meetings of church organizations were halved to save miles and fuel oil to heat buildings.
As things picked up, so did the Ladies Aid Society, which became known for their lutefisk dinners. By 1945 they were so popular that they served 800 people.
“The ladies worked so hard to cook lutefisk on this old stove,” said Norma Fristad, who at 95 is the oldest member of the church. She didn’t like the lutefisk, she said, but all the sides were delicious.
From an early stage, women’s aid was an important part of the social life of the women of the church. Fristad remembers her first meeting with the group as a young bride of 22 and felt that she was not suited for it.
A large group of ladies showed up for the meeting, and the hostess was expected to serve a full lunch — mashed potatoes, chicken and pie, she said.
“I thought, ‘I’m never going to join this organization because I can’t,'” she said. “But then it was all about dessert, which kind of burned the older ladies.”
Fristad happily accepted the quilt group and she’s still with them. In the early days, the quilters met twice a week in the church basement, stopping for coffee, homemade donuts, and a potluck lunch. While they sewed, elderly ladies worked in the kitchen, cooking, cleaning, and polishing cutlery.
“It was a great event,” said Fristad. “They had fun in the kitchen and we had fun out here.”
Although today only she and a friend make them, they still managed to send 47 quilts to Lutheran World Relief last year. Fristad also makes quilts for baptisms and graduations. For each graduate, church members design a square that is embroidered and sewn into the creation.
“It makes for a pretty colorful quilt,” said Fristad.
Although some families have moved from the area, many women continue the active church life they grew up with in Storla Lutheran.
“We left a legacy for our daughters,” said Margene Thompson, who used to take her youngest daughter to circuit and cleaning days, and continues to set a good example today, serving as president of the synodal women’s organization WELCA.
This is one way Storla is active in a broader community, Pastor Nancy Eckels said. They have also made an effort to help a partner church in Cameroon. A framed photograph in the sanctuary shows the roof they helped put up on the African church building. Eckels thinks this is particularly important for such a small church.
“I think it takes real commitment,” she said.
There used to be three circles for the women of Storla, couples clubs for young and old, and monthly family nights with games and dinner.
Sunday school was once called the “penny school” because the children had to bring their handkerchiefs tied together. Norma Fristad taught a kindergarten class of 13 young Lutherans, including Brett Selland, who has unofficially taken the job of church historian today.
He recalls the days of an active Junior Mission Society and Luther League who enjoyed camping trips in the Black Hills and Rocky Mountains. An annual summer softball game at Trinity Church was a favorite.
“That was the highlight of the summer meetings,” said Mary Fristad.
She and her husband farmed the land around Trinity, and the pastor always worried if the hay would be raised in time to clear the field for the softball game.
Storla Lutheran has continued without its sister church. Trinity closed in 2015 and the building burned down. A metal memorial stands in its place, and across the street is the common church cemetery.
“It’s hard to see rural churches being closed,” Norma Fristad said.
A live stream from the service, which started during the COVID-19 shutdowns, continues today, bringing in a good fan base from outside the area.
Today’s members are ready to celebrate how far they’ve come and honor the past with a celebration on July 10th. A morning service with Bishop Constanze Hagmaier, lunch and an afternoon to visit and remember are planned.
“I think they have a lot to be proud of,” said Pastor Eckels, who has served the church on her formal internship since her ordination in 2018 and before that. “They have done a lot in those 140 years and they have been faithful.”
Prayers on the Prairie is a regular feature of Tri-State Neighbor, replacing the Crop Watchers report during the winter season. If you have a suggestion for a rural church to feature here, contact editor Janelle Atyeo at [email protected]