Historic prairie church celebrates church's rescue this month

K. William Boyer
Devils Lake Journal

DEVILS LAKE - If you were driving down Hwy 2 in Pierce County, about five miles west of Rugby, you probably saw an old, weathered, dilapidated gray building and wondered, "how is that building even still standing?" 

That building, with its steeple on the verge of collapse, is known as the Tunbridge Lutheran Church and it was on the verge of collapse until a group of good hearted people came to its rescue.    

 The group formed a society, called the Turnbridge Church Lutheran Preservation Society and decided to restore the church to its former glory.  The preservation society president, Terry Jelsing, said that the first priority for them was to secure the outside of the building, which is known as "Phase-I" of the restoration project. 

a view of the church prior to the first phase of the restoration.

 “We hired contractors to replace beat-up shingles with a metal roof, repair and replace rotting siding, paint the exterior, and rebuild the steeple," Jelsong said.  "We were sensitive to the historic nature of the building. Based on our resources and maintenance considerations, we translated that aesthetic through modern materials.”

Jelsing said that the interior of the church was in relatively good shape except for the front entry which had to have the ceiling and floor replaced.

The restored structure is actually the second church to occupy the churchyard, according to Jelsing. In 1906 Jelsing’s great-grandfather, Afin Jelsing, donated three acres of land to the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tunbridge for a church and cemetery. The original church was struck by lightning in 1911 and burned to the ground. The current structure was built in 1914. The last church services were conducted there were in 1988, when the congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary.

A view of the church after the first phase of the restoration.

Several members of the Preservation Society board share ancestral connections to the church. Phase I repairs were financed for the most part by contributions from Jason Bednarz of Horace, N.D. Bednarz is also a great-grandson of Afin. 

“We formed the Preservation Society to preserve the church and keep it as an historic landmark,” Bednarz said. “We don’t want people to think this is a little club, it’s for use by everybody.”

Far from it, Bednarz says, the restored church is available for rent for cultural events, family reunions, concerts, and meetings. Last year it was used for a wedding and a funeral.

Now, the society wants to share the restoration project with people far and wide. On May 28 the Tunbridge Lutheran Church Preservation Society will host an open house celebrating completion of Phase I repairs to the building. The open house will be the first public event hosted by the Tunbridge Lutheran Church Preservation Society.

Hamburgers, hotdogs, and beverages will be served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. A brief program is planned at 1 p.m. Guest speaker will be Shane Engeland, executive director of the Geographical Center Historical Society and Prairie Village Museum, Rugby. The church will remain open for tours throughout the afternoon.

The church’s religious roots will be celebrated with a worship service at 10 a.m. on the 28th. Hosted by Dale and Marilyn Niewoehner, the public service will be followed by the dedication of the Dwight Jelsing Memorial Bell donated to the Preservation Society by Mary Jelsing in honor of her husband.

A view of the interior of the church.

The society said they will continue the restoration efforts.  They said they will continue to accept donations to a 501(c)3 nonprofit. People interested in donating can contact 701-681-0034 for more information. Jelsing said phase II of the restoration will include installing railings on the church steps, protecting stained glass windows, securing the foundation, and creating interpretive panels to tell the story of the church.

For more information about the church and to follow the restoration project go to Tunbridge Lutheran Church Preservation Society's page on Facebook.

Cathy Jelsing, Secretary of Tunbridge Lutheran Church, contributed to this article