About the Project

Our work aims to demonstrate that historic Nordic American churches are deeply embedded in many communities, and that their buildings, community engagement, ethnic traditions, and food events are significant civic assets to the larger region.

Savo Lutheran Church is built in a cross-shaped plan designed by 15-year-old Hella Keranen, daughter of Pastor Peter Keranen. Photo courtesy of South Dakota SHPO.
Savo Lutheran Church is built in a cross-shaped plan designed by 15-year-old Hella Keranen, daughter of Pastor Peter Keranen. Photo courtesy of South Dakota SHPO.

Background

Between 1820 and 1920, more than 2.1 million Nordic immigrants came to the American Midwest from Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, and Norway. Their settlements made a significant contribution to the cultural landscape of the region. However, churches built by these Nordic American communities are increasingly at risk due to shrinking populations, leading to fewer resources to care for buildings and the decorative arts within.

The Preserving Nordic American Churches initiative exists to help sustain the presence of these Nordic heritage churches in the Upper Midwest in three ways

  • By building awareness and encouraging study of Nordic heritage churches in the region
  • As a model of how small churches can preserve their buildings with the help of the wider community
  • As an example of how Nordic heritage churches can use their heritage to grow connections to friends and neighbors

In order to accomplish these goals, the project created a searchable online database of Nordic American churches in the region, and directly supported churches with strong cultural traditions.

By highlighting cultural heritage through this project and website, Partners also endeavors to demonstrate that sacred places are often the strongest and best expressions of national and ethnic history and artistry in any given region.

Database & Website

Our database of Nordic American churches is based primarily on Internet research and information provided by various churches and organizations. We consulted church websites and Facebook pages, state historic preservation office records, denominational and ethnic archives, historic preservation professionals, ethnic organizations, and academic experts to identify and document existing pre-1970 Nordic American church buildings. A select group of project advisers also provided valuable input.

The database represents the first survey of the region’s Nordic American churches that includes all five ethnic groups—rather than focusing on a single ethnicity—and the first to document both architecture and decorative arts and crafts: wood carving, metalwork, painting, stained glass, textiles, brickwork, and masonry. We also sought information on the ways these churches continue ethnic celebrations and food events.

Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Viborg, SD
Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Viborg, SD
Luther Memorial Church in Des Moines, IA
Luther Memorial Church in Des Moines, IA

Technical Assistance & Support

In addition to the inventory, a small number of churches have received direct support through this project through an application process. Participating churches represent ethnic and geographic diversity, as well as buildings that reflect Nordic heritage through their architecture and decorative arts, and/or through the active maintenance of ethnic traditions. Each participating church team attended a training session based on Partners for Sacred Places’ New Dollars/New Partners program. Attendees learned how to tell their story, better care for their building, and more effectively engage with the wider community. Following the training, Partners helped each group explore new ways to use their buildings in partnership with their neighbors.

Each team was invited to apply for funding to conduct restoration and repair projects for building exteriors, structural systems, or interior decorative arts. Each grant was matched by the recipient through new fundraising activities. These projects often involve connections with artisans, craftspeople, and other skilled workers familiar with historic building practices.

Participating churches were offered the opportunity to apply for grants for commissioned works of folk art by practicing artists and craftspeople, as well as public programming focused on connecting the churches with new supporters and audiences. These events created opportunities for churches to connect with their neighbors in new ways.

Through these various steps – training, identifying new partnerships in the community, repairs to buildings and decorative arts, and engaging community members through the creation of new art – this project ensures that churches with strong Nordic traditions will be able to continue their work with and in their communities for generations to come.

Support the preservation of Nordic American Churches

Donations to our Nordic Churches project have an immediate, invaluable impact on the communities and congregations we serve. Please help sustain Partners’ critical mission by donating today.

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