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Tunbridge church to get facelift

By Staff | Aug 9, 2019

A weather-beaten landmark familiar to many travelers on US Highway 2 west of Rugby will have a spruced-up appearance in a few months thanks to a plan launched by concerned area residents.

The Tunbridge Lutheran Free Church, built in 1914, has provided photo opportunities for locals and travelers alike for decades. A short trip south down a gravel road to the church from highway mile marker 206 often means passing cars with license plates from Minnesota or a Canadian province. Travelers often exit the highway to check out the gray spire peeking above a grove of trees on the prairie. Locals use the steeple as a landmark.

Many locals know the church, which held its last regular service in 1988, as much more.

“My involvement (with the church) really stems back a few years,” local resident Terry Jelsing, who now serves on the board of directors of the North Dakota Council on the Arts, told the Tribune. Jelsing volunteers his time to organize and take on administrative duties for the Tunbridge project.

“My father took me to sunrise services there and early in the morning the service would be completely in Norwegian which I didn’t understand, and it was very chilly in the church,” Jelsing said. “I could always smell the pancakes being cooked in the basement. And afterwards, we’d go down friends and neighbors would visit with one another, and kids would play, and we’d do all that sort of thing.”

“It was my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ church. My great grandfather, Anfin Jelsing donated the land that the cemetery is on, and the church itself.”

“It became an affiliate of Bethany Lutheran Church back at that time, and of course, Bethany is closing now. And there are so many places that, when you think about historic structures on the prairie the congregations have long been gone and disappeared, that what do you do with these places?” Jelsing asked.

Jelsing called Tunbridge Lutheran and other tiny country churches like it a concern not just for local communities, but society in general.

“When you think about (sacred places like the Tunbridge church) in terms of preservation of that heritage, it belongs not just to the descendants of the church, but to everyone in this community, and to the state.”

Jelsing said he has met with others who share his concern about the quietly deteriorating structure and its future.

“A few years ago, we had a meeting with interested parties to think about the future of the church. And through that meeting, it was decided that everyone wanted to preserve the church if the financial support became available.”

Jelsing said a three-phase plan to preserve the church grew from that meeting.

“Phase 1,” Jelsing said, reading from notes on a yellow legal tablet, “is to stop further damage and deterioration; repair the roof; structural damage to the building is weatherproof and secure.”

“Phase 2 is to form an organizing board and re-apply for the 501 ( C ) 3 status and non-profit status, and new articles of incorporation so the application for grants and financial support is congruent with the laws of North Dakota and the federal agencies that might provide support.”

“And,” Jelsing added, “Phase 3 is to develop internal programming through partnerships with local and national organizations to provide opportunities to bring Scandinavian heritage projects to the Rugby area. Any funding that is raised will be held in perpetuity for the purpose of supporting the cemetery fund and the upkeep of the church.”

Jelsing said as the plan developed, a family member from Fargo who shares his concern stepped forward to implement the first phase.

“A family member came forward it was a cousin of mine, and with unbelievably generous support, and an open heart for a project like this that included so many memories of his parents’ ancestors all of our ancestors he came forward to fund the first part, Phase 1 of the entire project. His name is Jason Bednarz.”

“For the most part,” Jelsing said of the church building, “It’s held up for many years, the general stuff, but part of the roof was starting to leak, and damage on the front started to happen, and of course, like the steeple because there’s so much detail involved, that becomes an area that has a little bit more effort and attention to it in terms of the repairing.”

More work, including preserving the church interior and stained glass windows one of which was placed inside the steeple during an earlier remodel will come with funding, which Jelsing said will result from later phases of the preservation plan.

Jelsing said funding opportunities would already be available if the church were organized as a charity with the necessary requirements.

“There were even (funding) opportunities recently,” Jelsing noted. “If we were a 501 ( C ) 3, we would have qualified for some nice pieces of support that would have really helped with this project, but until we get that done, we have to just hold our breath and wait until we get it done.”

Jelsing said the last phase of the project holds lots of potential for the building and the community it benefits.

“Even if we think of this as a form of economic development, by creating these partnerships and generating this new energy, it really falls in line with Burgum’s (Main Street) Initiative, and revitalizing rural towns in North Dakota,” Jelsing noted.

“It becomes a larger part of a puzzle that creates a viable destination,” he added. “So, we’re looking at tours; we’re looking at partnerships with the Norsk Hostfest, and actually bringing people down to see an example of a Scandinavian prairie church, with school groups however we can put those pieces together.”

“Right now, it’s a fairly open road map; we have some parameters of things that we have to do to become official, and after that, it’s like we’re including everyone who wants to participate and make this thing a very positive experience.”

Jelsing named a few of the many ideas for the church, which he said would be described in detail in a national publication.

“We’ve been asked by the Partnership for the Preservation of Sacred Places to provide an article which will be published sometime this winter or next spring on the history of this church. They are an organization located out east that is concerned with churches and historic places on the Northern Plains. They partner with the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation. So, through grants and through special projects, there may be monies available so that we can bring certain levels of high-level programming that deals with heritage to this area.”

“It could be very interesting everything from wood carving to rosemaling to Norwegian language, to you name it,” Jelsing said.

Jelsing estimated the first phase work, which in recent weeks has included a new roof, would finish in the fall. An organizational meeting was held Wednesday evening to form a board of directors and, according to Jelsing, discuss organizational goals.

In an email sent to the Tribune Thursday, Jelsing listed the following board members: Dale Niewoehner, vice chair; Marilyn Niewoehner, treasurer; Cathy Jelsing, secretary; Elsie Anderson, Kurt Anderson, Randi Heisler, Dwight Jelsing and Mary Jelsing, members at large. The email read, “Society members voted to develop articles of incorporation and bylaws and to pursue 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The society board will meet quarterly and as needed. The next regular board meeting will be Nov. 7 at a location to be determined.”

Jelsing invited those with questions about the church or offers to help to contact him at 776-7606.

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