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'We decided to try something special': Rural church holds old-fashioned Christmas service

Vintage music, clothing, languages a part of Our Savior's Lutheran Church worship

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Bubbles Mensch, dressed in vintage attire, assists the three youngsters playing the three kings in the live nativity portion of the old-fashioned Christmas service Saturday, Dec. 3, at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in rural Menno. Playing the kings, from left to right are, Cassidy Thomas, Jansen Wielenga and Zachary Schiltz.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic
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MENNO, S.D. — Some of the features of the Our Savior’s Lutheran Church Christmas service Saturday night, Dec. 3, harkened to an era long since past.

Music from an old-fashioned pump organ filled the sanctuary as attendees filed their way in before the service and accompanied the crowd during hymns. A tree adorned with vintage Christmons graced the area near the pastor’s dais. And those who had gathered sang Silent Night, alternating verses in Norwegian, German and English.

Those old traditions are part of a relatively new tradition at Our Savior’s, also known as the Stone Church for its unique exterior, which was constructed in the late 1940s out of native rock from the area. It cuts a unique silhouette against the James River valley, where it sits a few miles south of Menno.

“We decided to do something to celebrate Christmas in a special way and to revert back since our church is on the National Register of Historic Places,” said Barb Ulmer, a church member who serves as organist. “We decided to try something special, and we just went back and drew on things that some of us had done there as kids.”

The church can trace its roots back over 150 years to when Norwegian settlers homesteaded the James River Valley in the 1800s. In December of 1871, a group of those settlers organized a Lutheran congregation, becoming known as The Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, or The James River Congregation.

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After years of meeting in members’ homes, the group first dedicated a specific church building in November of 1885. Over the years, some members of the church branched out to form another congregation, the Norway Congregation. In 1920, that congregation re-merged with The James River Congregation to form Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.

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Dave Mensch, right, helps an attendee light a candle at the old-fashioned Christmas service Saturday, Dec. 3 at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in rural Menno.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

Following the end of World War II and the return of many young men from the front, construction was started on the current stone building, and it has hosted services since.

Church membership has shrunk in the subsequent decades, to the point it’s not hard to tell who is and isn’t present for worship services. But the few members still gather to worship, and the gathering Saturday night saw the pews fill up as much as they had in a long time to take in the unique service.

“We encourage people, if they would like, but they don’t have to, dress up from an older period of time, the 1800s, the 1940s, whatever. We have a table with some ladies hats so if they don’t have a hat and then decide they want to wear one they can take a hat from the table,” Ulmer said.

Ulmer worked to secure the vintage pump organ to give the music an old-timey feel as well, and a tree adorned with Chrismons, decorations that feature Christian symbols, was in place at the front of the church. Both the organ and the Chrismons date back to the earlier part of the 20th century, and add a feel of nostalgia to the proceedings, especially for some of the older members of the church, Ulmer said.

“We always have a Christmas tree that has Chrismons, and those were made in the 1960s, I think by an effort of the Sunday school and the church ladies. They were the ones who made most or all of the Chrismons, so throughout the years the Sunday school years back would use some of them as part of their program,” Ulmer said. “We continue to use those. They’re getting fragile so we have to be careful and repair them.”

A handful of those in attendance did take the time to dress up in vintage attire, and a few classic ladies’ hats could be spotted in the rows, and many of the men dressed in suits. In the modern era, where casual attire has replaced formal wear in many business and church settings, the suits themselves were a symbol of a classic mindset.

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Ladies' hats were available for service-goers at the old-fashioned Christmas service held by Our Savior's Lutheran Church Saturday, Dec. 3.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

A particular highlight is the singing of Silent Night, with verses sung in Norwegian, German and English, reflecting the history and background of the settlers from whom the current congregation descends. That portion of the service is conducted by candlelight, with attendees holding candles and singing.

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The service, which Ulmer said started about nine years ago, also features a live nativity performed by children dressed in the traditional garb of Mary, Joseph and the three kings, among others. The children gather at the front of the sanctuary, take their positions, and sing Away in a Manger. The living nativity portion of the service is particularly unique, as none of the children taking part are official members of the church. They are children from the region who take part to help give the service something it is unable to provide with its own congregation.

Even the costumes the children wear are vintage, and Ulmer helps adjust them to size them accordingly for the young participants.

“Most of the costumes, if not all of them, are from way back, so they’re older costumes. You have to add a hem or let it out to make it a little shorter or longer. It keeps a person busy,” Ulmer said.

Rod Goldammer, a lay minister who is handling services at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church while the congregation searches for a full-time pastor, said he has served dozens of churches in need of leadership in the pulpit when needed over the years. He said he has performed a variety of unique services in that time, and the Saturday night service was no different.

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A live nativity featuring children from the area was part of the old-fashioned Christmas service at Our Savior's Lutheran Church Saturday, Dec. 3, in rural Menno.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

“What I do is fill in, whether it be for one Sunday or for months or even a year. I love doing it, and there have been all kinds of different circumstances,” Goldammer said. “I’m grateful, honored that they allow me to do this. It’s kind of interesting, and I just enjoy it. If they’re willing to put this effort into it, it does my heart good. It’s awesome.”

Philip Bennet, a member of the church for about 60 years, said the service began with most in attendance dressing to the nines, but that has eased off in recent years. But the service is still unique, and the church Saturday was as full as he had seen it in some time.

That served as a reminder to a time when the pews were full most Sundays, something that seemed a given until the rural area population began to dwindle over the years.

“Things really didn’t change much over the years, and we had a lot of members in those days. A lot of kids in Sunday School and stuff like that,” Bennett said. “We just started kind of a new thing (with the throwback service).”

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Philip Bennett greets Kellen Borgelt, 4, and Staci Diffin during the old-fashioned Christmas service Saturday, Dec. 3 at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in rural Menno.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

The church is now down to about 10 to 12 members, Ulmer said, so the chance to bring a large group into the sanctuary is a blessing. Following the special service those at the service descended to the church basement where a variety of desserts were served, including area cultural staples like rosettes, krumkake and kolaches were served. Hot egg coffee was also served to take off the edge of the outside chill.

Special anniversary services set for Sunday at Our Savior's Lutheran Church

It was a nice chance to enjoy a church full of people, to worship and to hear the Christmas story, Ulmer said. She said she and the other dozen or so members want to keep the tradition of the service and the church going into the future, and hosting a service like the one Saturday night is one way to do that.

“We think a lot of the building and the church itself. We want to see it continue to stay open, even if just for a few people,” Ulmer said. “The Bible tells us where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there among them. I think our little church has a lot to offer, even if there are just a few of us.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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