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Posted 4/04/17 (Tue)

By Jack Dura
Farmer Staff Writer

Rev. Russ Fitch grabbed a rope and rang the larger of two bells in the belltower of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Hannover.
My friend Amy and I heard a couple clangs overhead before Russ stopped and smiled up at us from the stairs under the belltower.
We were on a tour of the church, the second of two structures that have served the parish. Hannover has 12 residents living at the townsite at the intersection of state highways 25 and 31, and Russ’s family is half the population.
St. Peter’s has about 240 congregants, he said, but about 60 to 100 attend each Sunday from as far away as New Salem and outside of Mandan. Russ officiates several ceremonies in a year, including baptisms “sprinkled throughout the year, pun intended,” he said, including one that day.
Russ came to St. Peter’s in 2009 as its 15th pastor, originally from northwestern Montana and as a recent graduate from seminary in Indiana.
In his office, he showed us pictures of his home congregation, including an altar of fieldstone and varnished tree roots.
Hundreds of books covered two walls by his desk. Leftover banana bread from Sunday’s social hour sat on a plate on a table near his door.
Up the street is the cemetery, with gravestones inscribed in German. Babies, teenagers, young women and other deaths all marked in stone showed the hardships of 100 years ago on the prairie.
Across from St. Peter’s was the old Blind Pig Bar, just a rundown, dilapidated shack of two and a half buildings tacked together with brick and wood. Russ wasn’t sure how the place got its name.
One or two people were out doing yardwork.
A man in a sports car raced to a stop at the intersection, whipped around and sped off in the direction he came.
A sea of low hanging, cottony clouds covered the beaming, blue sky.
This was life at a rural church, miles and miles away from any major community at a parish as old as the name of North Dakota.
The years haven’t been particularly kind to the state’s rural churches.
They’re an endangered species as congregants pass away, move away or decide to shut down.
Outside St. Anselm’s Church of Fulda, south of Berwick, I chatted with a rural resident who pointed out his friends’ and family’s graves in the cemetery of wrought iron crosses.
His wife had died, he’d sold his land but still lived on his family’s longtime farm. He’d pondered moving to Rugby but hadn’t decided yet.
The nearby brick church had closed in the ’80s as the last structure of the Fulda community. It was still unlocked.
At Sims Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Prairie Church (the oldest Lutheran church in west river North Dakota), the interior contrasted the empty landscape outside with hundreds of hymnals, liturgical art, a history of Sims (a ghost town, of course) and a framed account of First Lady Laura Bush’s visit in 2008.
The church is still active, yet as Amy and I poked around, it felt like someone had just left and would return after a quick errand. That’s probably true.
Much of North Dakota’s lonely places are frozen in time, like a music book propped open above a piano, or a jacket hanging on a hook for years.
Last one out, turn off the lights.