The Preserving Nordic American Heritage Churches website is a resource of Partners for Sacred Places. The centerpiece of the website is the searchable database of historic Nordic American churches in the Upper Midwest. Additional website links provide context to the database and draw from research conducted during this project and from the ongoing work of Partners for Sacred Places.
The database includes the following informational fields: photos (posted with permission), church name, location, construction and founding dates, ethnicity, denomination, current use, architectural style, architects/builders, artists/artisans, building additions/renovations, associated structures and landscape features, historic designation (such as listing on the National Register of Historic Places), bibliography, credits, and a “Notes-History-Features-Customs” section that includes information on church history, architecture, decorative and folk arts, and cultural traditions, as available. Additional documents (such as National Register nomination forms, state historic preservation office survey forms, church histories, or other data) are attached to the church record if available.
The database is still a work in progress, and some records are more complete than others. We are continuing to update and populate the database. If you have information, corrections, or a church to add, please click here.
Definitions and Scope
Our intent is to focus on existing buildings of Nordic American heritage in the Upper Midwest.
On this website, we define “Nordic American” churches as those with cultural roots in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, or Sweden. Churches of Norwegian and Swedish heritage are the most numerous. There are comparatively few Icelandic heritage churches.
Although Nordic heritage churches are located throughout the United States, our survey area is limited to North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (a geographic region determined by the project funder). Within this area, Minnesota has more churches than any other state.
We focus on properties that date from the nineteenth century through the 1960s. Most were built during the late 1800s and early 1900s, during peak periods of immigration from Scandinavia, Iceland, and Finland. These sacred places may or may not house active congregations; some have been converted to other uses, are under the care of nonprofit organizations, or are abandoned. Our intent is to include church buildings that are still standing, as opposed to historic but now demolished buildings. Nonetheless, given the fragile nature of many structures and the congregations that support them, the database inevitably includes churches that no longer exist.
Denominations represented are overwhelmingly Lutheran. This website does not track or document the many changes in Lutheran names and affiliations over time, except for distinguishing Finnish Apostolic Lutheran congregations (also subject to numerous name changes and splits). (For Lutheran denominational history of individual congregations, see the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, located in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, which preserves, protects and makes accessible the records of the ELCA, its predecessor church bodies, inter-Lutheran agencies and prominent leaders of the church.)
Other denominations represented in the database include Evangelical Covenant (formerly the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant Church of America); Converge (formerly the Swedish Baptist General Conference); and the Evangelical Free Church of America (formerly the Swedish Evangelical Free Church and the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Free Church Association). The Danish Baptist Conferences board gathered for its last national meeting in 1958, and many historically Danish Baptist churches since have become American Baptist congregations. The database also includes a small number of buildings associated with Methodists, Moravians, Seventh Day Adventists, Unitarians, and RLDS (Reorganized Latter Day Saints). Other denominations, once active among Nordic immigrant populations, no longer exist, or they currently are housed in newer buildings that don’t meet our criteria.
Most churches in this database reflect some form of Gothic Revival architectural style, following trends also prevalent in Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In most cases, we use the architectural style descriptions found in the original data sources ̶ in most cases historic site survey records from state historic preservation offices.
Folk and Decorative Arts
A goal of the Preserving Nordic American Churches Project is to make the folk art and cultures of Nordic American communities in the Upper Midwest more deeply understood and more broadly recognized. In researching the database, we focused primarily on historic folk arts, crafts, or building trades that were the product of immigrant generation artisans. The skills of these individuals ̶ often church or community members ̶ were used both to build the church (as masons, carpenters, brickworkers) and to decorate the building (as woodworkers and carvers, painters, stained glass artisans, metalworkers, textile makers). While some building designs and decorative features are the work of formally trained architects, artists, and artisans, others are the work of folk artists and craftspeople whose training was often through informal apprenticeships or learning through experience.
Folk arts are deeply rooted in community life and express the identity and values of the groups that create and use them. They can be both tangible (food, material objects, and buildings) or intangible (customs and traditions). Many Nordic American churches are rich sources for traditional food events (featuring specialties such as lutefisk/lutfisk, aebleskiver, kleinor, or pannukakku), holidays (such as the Icelandic Deuce of August or the Norwegian syttende mai), and calendar customs (such as the Swedish Midsummer Pole or Danish Fastelavn). They also house community art treasures, such as carved altar surrounds and pulpits, weathervanes by local metalsmiths, embroidered altar cloths, and painted designs that have enriched the worship experience for generations of church goers.