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Officials debate moving nearly 100-year-old ND church

WILD RICE, N.D. (AP) - Mick Pflugrath, a member of St. Benedict's Church of Wild Rice for 22 years, calls himself one of the newcomers.

But after taking a visitor on a recent historical tour of the nearly 100-year-old Catholic church of a parish founded 140 years ago by French-Canadian settlers, Pflugrath offered one conclusion about a plan to move the church to a more populated area.

"This is where we belong," Pflugrath said, pointing out such unique features as stained-glass windows written in French, a pipe organ built in 1888 and original woodwork and statues.

Another parish member, Tom Kenville, has offered to pay the salary of a priest and membership at a local golf club in order to keep the church in Wild Rice, which is now on the southern tip of a metropolitan area of more than 100,000 people.

The proposed move is part of a reorganization plan by the Catholic Diocese of Fargo, including the merger of two parishes and the opening of two new schools.

Diocese spokeswoman Tanya Watterud said no final decision has been made about St. Benedict's, which has about 215 families.

"It's all kind of up in the air," Watterud said. "There are all kinds of possibilities based upon how the parish feels about it."

Although church changes have been far from unusual among Catholic parishes in recent years _ particularly in the Dakotas and Minnesota where dozens of churches have closed _ the reorganization in Fargo is due more to population shift than "priest resources," Watterud said.

Demographic studies by both the diocese and the city of West Fargo show that the population growth in the metropolitan area will continue to move in a southwestern direction. The diocese last built a new church in south Fargo in 1995 and the parish is up to 1,500 families, she said.

"It's not a pay issue," Watterud said.

"We can't sit back and let communities grow around us without responding," she said. "We just really need to be where those families of people are."

St. Benedict's is believed to be the third Catholic church established in North Dakota, behind the Assumption Church in Pembina in 1818, and St. Joseph's Church in Walhalla in 1845. The original log church was built in 1870, in a different location, and burned the next year. The current church was built in 1913 at a cost of about $12,000.

Church annals list the first families to join the church. They were, in order, Cossette, Sauvageau, Morin, Dorval, Hebert, Denis, DuBord, Richard, Trottier, Pronovost, Brunette, Fugere, Rheault, Tessier, Brunelle, Duval, Bellemare, Lajoie, Bernier, Montplaisir and Bailly.

A school opened in 1903 eventually handed diplomas to its first high school class in 1939. The high school closed in 1964, and the final eight grade class graduated in 1966.

The pipe organ, designed and built by the firm of William King and Son of Elmira, N.Y., in 1888, was bought from Fargo College in 1940.

Lifetime church member Raymond Rheault, 80, said one of his favorite parts of the church is the original wood altar.

"You don't see that too often anymore," Rheault said. "We have done a lot of work over the years to keep the church looking pretty nice. We survived a lot, including floods."

Watterud said the parish has not yet consulted with an architect on what a move would entail. Some of have suggested that the church be used as a daily chapel next to the new building, she said.

Asked if he would be satisfied if the entire structure was moved, Kenville said, "No."

"If you came down to saying, we're going to set it on fire this afternoon or move it, and I watched you with 5-gallon gas can and matches, you might call my bluff," Kenville said. "It's kind of like playing poker. There's no reason to move it."