FOLK AND DECORATIVE ARTS IN HISTORIC NORDIC AMERICAN CHURCHES

 

Laurie K. Sommers, Project Manager, Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project, 2017-2019

 

 

Steeple of Springdale Lutheran
The steeple of Springdale Lutheran, Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, was designed by Norwegian immigrant and cabinetmaker, Aslak Lie.  He modeled the steeple after one he built for his home church in Bagn, Norway. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.

 

Imagine a pioneer church on the prairie, its steeple a beacon for miles around.  Or a church serving workers in the iron and copper mining regions of the Upper Midwest. The exterior is likely clad in wood, or perhaps sheathed with local brick or stone, all crafted by stone masons, carpenters, or brick masons who, as church members, volunteer their time and skill.  The bell summons congregants to services that bind them with ties of faith, ethnicity, and community.  The building is a place for worship and socializing, but it is also something more. Churches are places where communities invested precious resources in decorative arts that express local aesthetics and heritage through textiles, painting, glass, woodcarving, and metalwork.  Some of these decorative arts were purchased from catalogs or commissioned from professional artists and artisans who often were from their same religious and ethnic background.  Others were produced by traditional artists and craftspeople whose work more directly expressed community identity and values.

 

 

Ingemann Danish Lutheran Church
The vernacular architecture of Ingemann Danish Lutheran Church, built 1884 west of Moorhead, Iowa, reflects the handiwork of Danish immigrant carpenters John Johnson and Andrew J. Simonsen.  Photo by Mr. Gibbon, September 27, 2016, through Wikimedia Creative Commons.

 

Swedish Zion Lutheran Church, Souris, ND
The solid granite cladding of Swedish Zion Lutheran Church, built 1903-05 in rural Souris, North Dakota, illustrates the skills of Swedish immigrant stonemasons Claus Lundquist, Thor Landsverk, and Gunder Landsverk, assisted by volunteers from the church. Photo by Scott Wagar, Bottineau Courant.

 

Jacobsville Chapel, Houghton County, MI
Jacobsville Chapel (Houghton County, Michigan) was built in the heart of Upper Michigan’s Copper Country by and for Finnish immigrants in 1886/1892. The simple, unadorned sanctuary remains unchanged, providing attendees at summertime vespers services a glimpse into the worship experience of the area’s pioneer settlers. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers, 2018.

 

 

Traditional or folk arts are typically

 

  • Learned through oral tradition, apprenticeship, or example
  • Deeply rooted in community life
  • Both functional and decorative
  • Shared by a group with a common background (such as ethnicity and religion)
  • Old or new, but in this project more often the product of immigrant-generation artisans

 

The traditional artists and artisans who built and decorated these sacred places included church women who lovingly embroidered an altar cloth or pieced a fundraising quilt.  They were carpenters who installed wainscoting, built bellcotes, and crafted altars, pulpits, and pews. They were metalsmiths–perhaps blacksmiths by day–who designed weathervanes and the occasional light fixture.  They were church members who painted the altar paintings that held places of honor at the front of the sanctuary.  These men and women produced work that felt familiar to their friends, neighbors, and fellow worshippers, because they were creating arts and crafts that reflected the community’s culture, identity, and values (as opposed to individual artistic creations intended to be new or unique).

 

 

This section of our website includes information on artistry in wood, textiles, and paint found in Nordic American churches surveyed from 2017-2019 by Partners for Sacred Places during the Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project.  Our work focused on churches of Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Swedish, and Norwegian heritage located in the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan.

 

Chisago Lake Evangelical Lutheran
Swedish immigrant William Carlson (b. 1855) of Central City, Minnesota, did much of the woodwork for his home church, Chisago Lake  Evangelical Lutheran (built 1888).  The town’s resident carpenter/builder, he also co-owned the local lumberyard. Photo courtesy of the church.

 

Vidalin Icelandic Lutheran, Akra, North Dakota
Women are still creating altar cloths, like this one recently installed at Vidalin Icelandic Lutheran, Akra, North Dakota. Photo courtesy of the church.

 

 Luther Memorial Church, Des Moines, Iowa
Danish immigrant Jes Smidt supplied both painting and carved altar for Luther Memorial Church, Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.