Out of Russia

By Rev. Victor Schill
Prairies 7, no. 7
June/July 1984, 90-110, 113

Since the history of St. John’s and St. Andrew’s of Zeeland and St. David’s of Ashley are intertwined, a general introduction will serve for all three parishes. With the limited space, history is necessarily sketchy. Yet the history of any parish would seem incomplete without some consideration of the causes and events which led to its beginnings.

With the degeneration of Christianity in Europe, many unfortunate things led to the split of Christianity in the 16th Century, followed by the Hugenot Wars in France, the revolt in the Low Countries, the 30 years of civil war in Germany, and the struggles for the British Isles, with the numerous squabbles and persecutions. With Christianity weakened and nothing to hold them in check, the rulers became absolute monarchs in the 17th century, recognizing no authority but their own, which led to further suppression of Christianity, the rapidly growing forces of atheism, and still more wars among the various rulers.

In the 17th century came the godless French Revolution with its attempt to suppress all religion, followed by the Napoleonic Wars which terrorized all Europe. People were simply fed up with the constant devastating wars, the increase in poverty, religious suppression and confusion, which gave them great incentive to immigrate to the new land of America. With America’s establishment of independence and the guarantee of religious freedom and freedom of speech, a new nation was born which offered a new life to the downtrodden and already overpopulated Europe. Vast numbers emigrated from Europe in search of a new life in America, and before too long the land east of the Mississippi was largely populated.

In the meantime, for almost four centuries, the Russians had fought many bitter battles with the Mongols who invaded Russia from the east, and eventually forced them to return to their own territory, which left vast areas of land with few inhabitants to the southeast. By the tame Catherine II came to the throne of Russia in 1762, overpopulated Europe needed more living space. She offered large areas of land north of the Black Sea for colonization, and the European countries gladly cooperated.

Catherine II offered each married couple about 160 acres of free land (single males, 80 acres) with the option of buying more. To those who were too poor to move, she offered government loans with low interest and 20 years to pay to provide transportation and to buy the basic necessities to get started. As an added incentive, they would become full citizens of the Russian Empire. They could form their own local government, without Russian interference, and would forever be free of military service. To avoid religious conflict, each separate colony would be formed on the basis of religious persuasion. With few exceptions all the original villages were either Evangelicals (mostly Lutheran), or Catholic, or Mennonite, plus a few smaller groups. This arrangement enabled them to retain their faith, culture, and language in peace. That trait they brought with them when they settled in colonies in America.

For many Europeans, this seemed to be an ideal opportunity and the young were encouraged by their families to make use of it. Consequently, as many Europeans were migrating to America, many of their blood relatives chose to go to southeastern Russia to settle in the regions north of the Black and Caspian seas, with miles and miles of open land. Little did they realize that their lives in cultured Europe had left them ill-prepared to start a new life from scratch in an open wilderness.

In their early years, they suffered extreme hardships, and by sheer necessity were compelled to work together in mutual support. During the course of a century they came to flourish, build up excellent farms, orchards, homes, and cities, which were the pride (and later the envy) of Russia. The Catholics who settled in the Volga and Odessa regions were mostly from the Palitinate, Alsace Loraine, North Baden, and Swabian regions.

Through their correspondence with blood relatives in both Europe and America, they learned that the Great Plains in North America were open for settlement, and some South America countries were also advertising land for settlement in the newspapers of Europe.

By the middle of the 18th century, the whole attitude of the Czars and Russian people had changed towards the Russian-Germans. With one stroke of the pen, all the guaranteed privileges were cancelled. In June of 1871, Czar Alexander II issued a decree that the Russian-Germans would be exempt from military service for only ten more years. In a later order, the drafting into the military service was to begin in November of 1874. Although usually shorter, the military service could last up to 20 years. With the appointment of Russian judges and magistrates in each village, many of their civil rights and freedoms were lost. The Russian attitudes were that if these people didn’t like it, they could pick up their belongings and move out. That is just what many of them did.

In the spring of 1874, emissaries from both Catholic and non-Catholic colonies were sent to both Americas in search of land settlements. Many chose to move to the more moderate climates of South America, especially in Argentina. The emissaries to North America came to New York, and received directions to go west. Since these people liked the arrangements they had in Russia, they sought large tracts of land to resettle in closed colonies with their own churches and schools. Finding no large tracts of land available east of the Mississippi, they came by the southern railroads to the more moderate climates of Kansas and Nebraska.

In the fall of 1874, 162 Catholic families settled in Kansas, where their numbers reached to a quarter million within a few years. A large group of Mennonites settled in Nebraska; and a large group of Lutherans south of Yankton, South Dakota. Aberdeen became a great Catholic settlement. In the summer of 1874, some moved to Menno and Freeman, South Dakota, a town which had just started as a result of railroad construction. Some Mennonites had already been settled in that area. Those first groups encouraged others to follow them. It was nothing unusual for 25,000 people to leave Russia in a single year. In the meantime, the Scandinavians had also established themselves in central South Dakota.

Although there was some truth in it, the malicious reports about the desert of Dakota Territory, with the highly exaggerated reports about its extreme temperatures, it being the natural home of the American Indian, coupled with the vicious reports of General Custer at Fort Lincoln at Mandan, discouraged early pioneers from moving north until the land of the Southern states had been taken. As the immigrants continued to come in ever-increasing numbers, the new settlers were forced to look for land west and north of Ipswich, South Dakota, which at that time was the end of the railroad.

Some settlements were made in Greenway, Roscoe, and Artas, South Dakota, almost reaching the site of the future Zeeland. Some settlements were made around Ashley and Wishek in 1886. At least three early pioneers had settled just south of Zeeland in the fall of 1884, namely Christian Bauers, Freidrich Ellwein, and Heinrich Haffner. The first Catholic families that moved into the Zeeland area in 1884 were Peter Mitzel, Carl Fischer, John Senger, John Werlinger, and Marcus Veigel. In the spring, they were joined by 30 other families who had wintered at Menno.

When North Dakota became a separate state in 1889 and offered three quarters of free land, instead of the usual one quarter offered by the southern states, the new immigrants rushed into North Dakota. As a result, North Dakota received about 85 percent of the new wave of Catholic immigrants. This brings us to the beginnings of the city of Zeeland.

The town site of Zeeland is part of the pre-emption claim of the above-mentioned Heinrich Ellwein, which had been sold to Christian Bauers on December 3, 1897. The Milwaukee Land Company platted the town site and conveyed the right-of-way to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, and the Pacific Railway Company. The railroad was brought in from the terminal at that time, Eureka, to Zeeland. By the time the railroad got there, some business places had already been established. Zeeland was organized into a village in 1905, when it received its first charter. The first Catholic church was built the same year. The first town board consisted of Frank Kraft (Catholic), Adolph Boschee (Protestant) and Adolph Feinstein (Jew). At a special election on January 29, 1946, the village voted to be incorporated as a city under the council form of government. In April, Martin Braun (Catholic) was elected its first mayor. The village population in 1906 was around 400.

Church of St. John the Baptist

The Catholic Church in this area did not have its beginnings in Zeeland, but in the country church of St. John the Baptist, five miles north of Zeeland, which is constantly referred to as the “Mother Church.” The real immigration into North Dakota began around 1885 when a group settled around the railroad terminal of Ipswich. From there, they expanded to the north and west.

Although many others too numerous to mention were involved, we must mention Abbot Martin Marty (later Bishop of Yankton, South Dakota) of St. Meinrad’s Benedictine Abbey in Indiana and his few companions who came as missionaries to work among the Indians at Fort Yates, North Dakota, in 1876. They were joined a few years later by Benedictines from Conception, Missouri, who took over the Fort Yates mission within a few years. Among the Benedictine Fathers who played an important role among the Catholic Russian-Germans in this area were Bede Marty, Marin Kenel, Claude Ebner, Bernard Strassmeier, and Francis Gerschweiler.

For over a year, the German settlers were without a priest. They gathered in private homes to recite the rosary and litany, sing some religious hymns, and read the Sunday Scriptures. Their presence became known to Fr. Martin Kenel (Superior) at Fort Yates, who sent Fr. Bede Marty to see if the people were really Catholics. In July he found the community, stayed a few days, celebrating Mass, preaching, giving instructions, and administering the sacraments. On July 7th he baptized Catherine Jangula, the first known Catholic child born in McIntosh County, plus several others. In September of 1886 Fr. Bede made a second visit, lasting 13 days, and baptized another 12 infants. Better days came when Fr. Bernard Strassmeier, beloved by both Indians and Germans, who became popularly known as “Good Fr. Bernard,” took the German settlement under wing and baptized 15 infants on November 1-3, 1887, and made six visits in 1888, seven more lengthy visits in 1889, and frequent visits in 1890, with the number of baptisms increasing from year to year.

During those first years the people were extremely poor and suffered great hardships, living under a wagon box until they got their small sod houses built.

They were able to break up from five to 10 acres of sod, which yielded 12-15 bushels per acres, and selling for around $1.65 per bushel. In 1886, a prairie fire destroyed many of their feed. In 1887, a fierce cyclone destroyed many of their sod houses, and grass hoppers devastated much of their late crops. In the fall, another prairie fire destroyed much of their hay and straw. The courage for them to persevere came from good Fr. Bernard, who made his first visit in November of that year. He organized St. John’s parish and promised to visit them every two months. The winter of 1888-1889 was one of the hardest winters they experienced, with a super-abundance of snow and terrific three-day blizzards.

However, the people were blessed with a good harvest in 1888 and were able to recuperate from some of their former losses. Now immigrants greatly increased the number of Catholics in St. John’s area. Gathering in a few small homes became impossible. The limited time that Fr. Bernard could spend with them made it next to impossible to give reasonable service to all in the small private homes. The people realized they needed a church, and promised to build one in 1888 if the crops were good in the fall. They kept their promise.

Adam Jangula offered ten acres of land for the church and cemetery. Balthasar Hoffart, an excellent carpenter, was put in charge of the construction. The lumber was hauled in from Eureka, about 30 miles away. The 30 x 50 ft. building got under roof that fall and finished in the spring at the cost of about $1,500, with all labor donated. At that time, it was the largest and best building in McIntosh County, which inspired other settlements to build churches, and also schools until public education became available. St. John’s Church was solemnly blessed by Fr. Bernard on May 12, 1889, amidst great rejoicing.

Bishop Marty from Yankton had promised to come for confirmation in October 1889. It was a great disappointment when he failed to arrive. While en route, the good Bishop received an urgent message to return to Yankton immediately. That year, North Dakota became a separate state, with its own diocese under Bishop John Shanley, located at Jamestown. That change of events was part of the reason for Bishop Marty’s return to Yankton.

With the year of 1890 came a complete crop failure with extreme suffering, which would have been far worse if Fr. Bernard had not gone to Iowa to beg for food, clothing, and seed grain. He returned with great supplies and about $1,200 which carried them through the winter. The federal Congress also appropriated some money for the purchase of seed wheat and a few bare necessities.

Suffering from the loss of territory, hunting grounds, and the drought, the Indians also became very restless at this time, with a great danger of an uprising, which might easily have happened if some government agents (inexcusably) had not killed Sitting Bull. A Painte Indian, Wovoka, had developed a mysterious cult among various Indian tribes, which seemed to have involved some satanic forces. He posed as a “Red Messiah.” According to Wovoka, by faithfully following his cult, the Indian and the Buffalo (through the work of the Great Spirit) would replace the white man and his cattle, leaving the white man annihilated. He had a large following. Although Sitting Bull had just been released from two years of imprisonment, the white man still considered Sitting Bull as a real power among the Indians. It seems very possible that Sitting Bull was considering using the cult to his advantage.

Whatever the case may be, an attempt was made to arrest Sitting Bull a second time. He refused to surrender peacefully and was suddenly killed in gunfire.

Although the uprising never took place, the rumors and fears were so great that the settlers around St. John’s all fled to Eureka, except for one woman who had bread in the oven and couldn’t leave. Although this may seem silly today, it does highlight the extreme poverty and pricelessness of a loaf of bread at that time.

On October 15, 1891, Bishop Shanley came to St. John’s and confirmed 220 children and adults. By addressing the congregation in the German language, he endeared himself to both young and old, who fell in love with their new Bishop. They also had a good crop that year. Bishop Shanley was so impressed when he saw the large number of settlers that he would gladly have sent them a resident pastor, if he had one to send. At that time he had only 32 priests in the whole state and 21 of them were from other dioceses who could leave at any time.

A resident pastor at St. John’s was not possible until 1893, when Fr. Henry Schmitz came as its first pastor and built a 24 x 24 ft. rectory under the supervision of the same Balthasar Hoffart at a cost of $600 to $600.

But before the house was finished, Fr. Schmitz had to go to the hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he died. At the end of 1893, Bishop Shanley sent Fr. Joachim Widmer, O.S.B. of St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana as the second pastor of St. John’s, with the surrounding territory as his missions. But he was recalled by his supervisor in September 1895. The various interims were filled in mostly by Fr. Strassmeier and Fr. Gerschweiler from Fort Yates.

Those who succeeded Fr. Widmer were Fathers Joseph B. Wilhelm (1895), B. Fresenburg (1896), Claudius Ebner, O.S.B. (1897), and Stephen Stenger, O.S.B. (1898-1908). Under Fr. Stenger, various missions were founded: namely, Sts. Peter and Paul, Strasburg; St. Aloyisius on Beaver Creek; Holy Trinity at Grassna; St. Anthony and St. Boniface in Logan County; St. Philip Neir at Napoleon: and in 1905 St. Andrew’s Church in Zeeland, which was the first church in the village.

The rectory in Zeeland was built the following year. Having acquired much knowledge at the Abbey, Fr. Stenger was a great leader in improving farming methods and in developing better breeds of horses, cattle, hogs, poultry, and other to supplement the grain crops. The first church at St. John’s was built on the west side of the road. Soon it was too small for the increasing numbers. So, Fr. Stenger built the present building on the east side of the road, and the first church became the parish school and hall.

Succeeding Fr. Stenger were Fathers Stephen Landolt (1908), Nik. Paul Junger (1910), and Herman Decker (1911-1914), who built the second and most modern rectory on the prairie, also on the east side of the road, the former rectory becoming the residence of the school master.

Next came Fathers M.V. Mueller (1914), E.J. Steinach (1925), N. Fox (1926), J.P. Zimmerman (1930), J.C. Greiner (1935), Sigfried W. Heyl (1936), Conrad Ludwig (1943), Richard Fuetscher (9147), Anton Anzic (1949), Alois Zdolsek (1958), and the final pastor Victor Schill (1959-1968).

After many years of neglect, the buildings (especially the church) had become badly deteriorated. With good heart and courage and mostly all donated labor, the good people of St. John’s worked many long, hard hours to remedy the situation. After moving the church on a new, full basement, both interior and exterior were completely renovated, a new floor installed, the pews refinished, new furnaces installed, the basement finished off with a kitchen, removable walls provided classrooms for religious instructions, the grounds relandscaped for drainage, the parking lot filled with 80 loads of gravel, new sidewalks built, the rubble of former building foundations cleaned up, the land tilled, and a shelterbelt planted on three sides.

Due to a clerical shortage, the pastor was transferred to another parish, and St. John’s became a mission of St. Andrew’s until 1971, when St. John’s merged with St. Andrew’s and the church closed.

St. David’s Church: Ashley

Until 1944, the few Catholic families that lived in Ashley attended divine services on Sundays in the surrounding parishes, particularly St. Andrew’s in Zeeland, St. Mary’s at Hague, and St. Patrick’s of Wishek. So far as can be determined, the first Sacrifice of the Mass was offered in Ashley around Easter in 1920, in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Martin Ruemmele.

From 1920 to 1930, pastors from St. Andrew’s, St. John’s, or St. Phillip’s Church of Napoleon occasionally held services (mostly on weekdays) in the various homes of the parishioners. During that time, the Catholic families were few: the Martin Ruemmeles, Frank Ruemmeles, Nickalous Kautts, Steve Fischers, and H.L. Wolls.

From 1935 until 1944, the Rev. Victor Long, pastor of the Transfiguration Church in Edgeley, offered Mass once a month on weekdays in the large room of the Home Hotel, then owned by Attorney Franz Shubeck, and operated by Anna Kautt and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Nickalaus Kautt. It was during this period that the first Catholic Mission was given, July 13-17, 1937, by the Rev. Thomas Jundt, O.S.B., then assistant pastor at Edgeley. Mass was celebrated each morning with the participants receiving Holy Communion. Sermons were preached both in the morning and at the evening services. In the afternoons, the children were given religious instruction by Sisters Louis Phillipe of St. Joseph’s Academy of St. Paul, Minn., and Sister Angela of St. John’s Academy of Jamestown, North Dakota.

In 1944, the Rev. Charles Veach of St. Helena’s Church in Ellendale began having Mass regularly every Sunday for the small group in Ashley. This continued until 1951, when the Rev. Anton Anzic, pastor of St. John’s Church replaced Father Veach, and Ashley became a station of St. John’s parish. In 1958, Father Anzic was forced to retire because of ill health and was succeeded by the Rev. Alois Zdolsek.

It must be noted here that the Catholic congregation through all these years was most fortunate in being able to use the room in the Home Hotel for its religious services. Louis Marek and her sister Anna Kautt, reserved this large room and faithfully maintained it as a chapel. In addition to the routine cleaning, these ladies cared for the vestments and altar linens and provided fresh flowers and plants for the altar. In these and other works, they gave freely of their time and energy.

The chapel in the hotel served very well and was quite adequate until about 1955. As a few more Catholic families moved into the community and with the children growing up, the chapel at times was quite crowded. Periodically the idea of securing a church building was discussed. It was always abandoned, as being too ambitious a project for so few to undertake.

In the early spring of 1959, during the administration of Father Zdolsek, the St. James Lutheran Church was advertised for sale by sealed bids. This church, located about seven and one-half miles southeast of Ashley, was admirably suited to the needs of St. Mary’s Mission, as the chapel was then known. On March 16, the members voted unanimously to submit a bid of $3,100 for the church and its contents. This bid was duly submitted on March 19, 1959 by Peter Goettle and Andrew Bosch, acting as parish directors. With permission and upon advice from Bishop Leo F. Dworschak of Fargo, the transaction was completed on April 16, 1959. In the purchase of the church, the congregation received financial aid from the Catholic Extension Society of Chicago, Ill., the Home Mission Fund of the diocese of Fargo and the David Walter family and B.M. Devaney family of Chicago, Ill. Then through the generosity of the late J.H. and Nina Farley Wishek heirs, three lots in the northeastern part of town were donated as a site for the church.

By the time the new pastor of St. John’s Church arrived in early July (Fr. Victor Schill), the basement was already over half finished, and the church was moved to town the same month. Under the direction and with the assistance of Father Schill, the men and the women of the parish spent that fall and winter in remodeling and redecorating the church.

With grateful hearts, the small parish at last saw the fulfillment of its dream for so many years. On March 9, 1960, St. David’s, the first Catholic Church of Ashley, was dedicated by the Most Rev. Lee F. Dworschak, Bishop of Fargo.

However, it was soon discovered that the high winds tended to shift the high steeple, so in the fall of 1961, the steeple was lowered by 14 feet and in the fall of 1962 an open entry was added to shelter the front door, and the streets by the church were blacktopped. A new organ was also purchased. In 1963, the interior of the church basement was finished and a small kitchen installed, and the exterior of the church was painted. The following year the basement was divided into temporary classrooms for religious instruction for the increasing number of children.

In 1971, St. John’s parish merged with St. Andrew’s, and St. David’s became a mission of St. Andrew’s, served successfully by Fathers Joseph Mentel, Valentine Gross, and Gregory Patejko until the fall of 1979 when Fr. Victor Schill became the present pastor of St. Andrew’s and St. David’s

With the generous cooperation of the parishioners who donated their time and labor, the basement was insulated and painted in the spring of 1983 at the modest cost of $750.


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