Angels of the Prairie, a place of refuge and repose
A dedication to love, a dedication to the past
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
When Stacy and Chad Smith decided to renew their marriage vows after 10 years, they wanted to do something special. Stacy remembered her beloved aunt, Enid Ringdahl, who has a small private chapel, a simple white prairie church from northern Minnesota on her property in Ottertail County. Stacy was so inspired that she wanted to create a sacred space like this of her own. As an ardent preservationist and collector, she simply loved the idea; how can you not want to save such a building and make it reborn?
According to Norwegian-American historian Odd S. Lovoll, “The Lutheran Church was the largest and mightiest of the immigrant institutions; Lutheran and Norwegian were associated with one another inside as well as outside the Norwegian-American community. As an institution, the church enjoyed a central position.”
This was particularly true in the Dakotas. The prairie sanctuary was a symbol of life. It brought people together. Since people mostly lived far apart, it’s where neighbor met neighbor.
However, recent population movement has led church buildings to be abandoned for years, especially in rural America. The prairie church has gone the way of the one-room schoolhouse. Journalist Erica Pearson has reported that 2019 data from around three dozen Protestant church closures outpace openings in the United States and found that 4,500 churches closed across the country. The pandemic has not helped the situation.
Remembering her aunt who first gave her the idea, Stacy went shopping. She didn’t find a church but found stained-glass windows and an altar set, including baptismal font, pulpit, and painting, 14 feet tall and dated 1926, from the Norwegian-American Zion Lutheran Church that had closed in Towner, N.D. These items were tucked away in a warehouse in Minot, N.D. The Smiths loaded everything into a trailer and set out on the eight-hour drive home.
“My mom was 100% Norwegian, now buried at Trondheim cemetery in Marshall County, S.D. Like many prairie churches, the church no longer stands; only the cemetery remains. My great-grandparents, Carrie Lono Gunderson and Gilbert Gunderson, came from Norway. The name, Angels of the Prairie, was inspired from the prairies of South Dakota, especially Nunda and Veblen where my own family settled and is buried. Prairie Queen Church in Nunda was my ancestors’ church.”
Stacy admits, “I have no relation to the church in North Dakota where the altar came from. [I was] just someone who saw the altar set needing a loving home! To think of all the weddings, baptisms, funerals, and prayers in front of that special altar… and with such a well-documented history, it needed to be saved!”
The altar painter was Arne Berger (1872-1951) from Fagernes in Valdres, Norway. Berger received his drawing education in Norway, but by the early 1890s, he had moved to Minneapolis. In 1893, he worked for the J.E. Burt Portrait Co. The following year, he moved to Northfield, Minn., where he painted and began his altar paintings and portrait work. In late 1903, Berger moved to Decorah, Iowa, where he continued this work. He moved again to Portland, Ore., but he finally ended up in Minneapolis in 1918 and set up a studio.
Berger continued to paint altars into the 1920s. Notably, he participated in the Norse-American Centennial in 1925. His last known work was for the Grace Lutheran Church in Fairmont, Minn., in 1934.
The altar painting now at Angels of the Prairie was presented to the congregation by Mrs. Sigrid Nertrost before her death, and she chose the subject for the altar painting. She wanted it to be a depiction of “The Good Shepherd,” incorporating the theme of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” This was a motif that she believed children would understand and love.
“That picture has done more for people through the years than many realize.” Stacy tells us, “Berger’s elderly grandchildren heard about this little church and wanted to come up and see the altar. It was a nice meeting with them. It has since been very popular and has attracted many visitors from all over.”
To help create a design for the building, Stacy started gleaning information from photos on Pinterest. She explains, “I designed the chapel and hired Amish carpenters to build a simple white small structure to resemble the prairie church at the beginning of Norwegian settlement.
“The stained-glass windows from the old congregation were built into the quaint chapel,” Stacy adds. “Everything was designed around and for the altar set, including the baptismal font and the pulpit, and the stained-glass windows.
Stacy and Chad placed the chapel building on their 24-acre piece of property, Oak Alley Farm in Isanti County, near Cambridge, Minn. Here you will see rolling hills, ponds, dense gardens, a pine grove, centenarian oak trees, native prairie grasses, and wildflowers—a perfect setting for a place of refuge and repose.
“It’s small but has such a huge story! It has become a popular wedding ceremony spot either inside for smaller, intimate ceremonies or outside for larger ceremonies or baptisms.”
The intimate chapel is open May through October, one weekend a month. It is available for private tours and intimate weddings for up to 16 people.
On the property, there is wildlife as well as large Japanese koi in ponds, pet turtles, and frogs. Horses, peacocks, and a donkey roam the grounds and bring yelps of joy from visiting children. You can enjoy a picnic or make a wish at the fountain and count the many angels in the memory gardens.
Since Chad is a professional landscaper and Stacy is a trained florist and loves to garden, the grounds are filled with multi-colored fields of flowers. Stacy spends most of her time outdoors planting. There is a botanical garden and a “U-Pick” garden filled with prairie wildflowers, tulips, daffodils, hydrangea, perennials, and annuals of all types and hues. The lush and luxuriant fields of flowers make a great photo op or are a flourishing background for fun events like “U-Pick” flowers and bouquet arrangements that are sold to visitors.
Local artists come one weekend a month to display and sell their handmade items. A boutique featuring artisans and their specialties will open in May.
Stacy says, “There is a small occasional boutique before you enter the church grounds where we sell fun home and garden gifts and Scandinavian treasure and art. There are plenty of trolls, so there will be more as well as angels.”
Since Angels of the Prairie is the name for this destination, you will also find angel sculptures all over the lush terrain. The word angel derives from the Greek angelos, meaning messenger. An angel is a messenger of a higher deity, characterized as having human form with wings and a halo. The word suggests goodness and is often used to refer to someone who offers comfort and aid to others in times of trouble. For this reason, a nurse is often called an “angel of mercy.” In the Bible, angels are denoted as celestial attendants, often depicted as guardians of humans, a concept found in ancient Asian cultures as well.
Like India’s Taj Mahal, a representation of Mughal architecture and a building built on love in 1631 by Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, the Angels of the Prairie chapel is also a monument to love with Norwegian overtones. Stacy explains, “As my church, Angels of the Prairie is a dedication to not only love but to my Norwegian ancestors.”
It began as a 10-year wedding anniversary gift from Chad to Stacy as a place where they renewed their vows and has since turned into a popular destination attracting many visitors. The Smiths are hoping the garden and chapel at Angels of the Prairie will survive them well into the future. Both Stacy and Chad are happy to share their beautiful gardens and chapel, true labors of love as well as a symbol of an American love story and a hidden Norwegian-American gem.
Visit angelsoftheprairie.com or watch social media for a calendar. Because Angels of the Prairie is located on private property, if you would like to visit and it’s a non-open day, please email email@example.com to schedule a tour.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.