Saving Turnbridge Lutheran Church

For more than three decades now, the church on the prairie just west of Rugby, North Dakota
has sat silent and vacant, its proud gray steeple belying the toll that weather and neglect has taken on
the clapboard siding and checkered roof below. Once upon a time, Tunbridge Lutheran Free Church —
built in 1914 — housed a vibrant congregation of Norwegian American pioneers and their descendants,
who for more than 70 years gathered at the church each Sunday for worship and fellowship. Since 1988
however, the year Tunbridge held its final service and permanently closed its doors, disuse has led to
disrepair, and the church has become little more than a bucolic image on an otherwise featureless
landscape for travelers on US Highway 2.

Even for many Pierce County residents, the church is but a landmark and a timestamp — a way
of orienting oneself in space and time, a nostalgic reminder of days past. Whatever one makes of the
church on the prairie, perhaps its most discernible features for some time have been its decay and
imminent disappearance.

That is, until now.

Thanks to a concerned group of area residents, the old Tunbridge Lutheran Free Church is
destined for immediate restoration and ongoing preservation. Terry Jelsing, a board member of the
North Dakota Council on the Arts, has taken the Tunbridge project under his wing, setting forth a 3-
phase plan to ensure the preservation of the church building and, in turn, the Norwegian heritage the
building represents.

Phase I is all about first-things-first: stopping further structural damage and deterioration. This
entails immediate repairs to the roof and siding in order to maintain the structural integrity of the
exterior and to protect the priceless pieces in the structure’s interior: the hand-carved altar and
communion rail, the altar painting, the wooden pews, the old piano. The necessary funding for Phase I
has already been achieved, thanks to Jason Bednarz, Terry Jelsing’s cousin.

The goal in Phase II is to become official, that is to apply for and obtain 501c3 nonprofit status.
Such a status ensures that any grant funding or donation the project receives is compliant with state and federal law.

Most intriguingly, Phase III seeks to encourage the active preservation of Norwegian heritage
and tradition in the local community. Through partnerships with state and national organizations, the
hope is to revive local public interest in Scandinavian culture – be it in the form of food traditions, music and dance performance, holiday customs, seasonal practices, etc.

The case of Tunbridge Lutheran Free Church in Rugby, North Dakota provides but one example
of a community mounting a grassroots campaign to wrest a piece of its own history from the brink of
disappearance. What is striking about this particular example, however, is the effort not only to keep
this history a part of the physical landscape in preserving the church, but the effort also to keep the
religious and ethnic heritage a part of community life for generations to come.

Tunbridge Lutheran Church. Rugby, ND. Courtesy of the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office.
Tunbridge Lutheran Church. Rugby, ND. Courtesy of the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office.
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