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End of the road . . . The Bethlehem Lutheran Church, about 12 miles
southwest of Kenmare and south of State Highway 50 in Mountrail County,
as it has been seen for a century, will host its final worship service next month.
By Marvin Baker
A pioneer church that has stood on the prairie in Mountrail County for nearly 100 years, will be closing in August.
Rural church leaders at Bethlehem Lutheran Church southwest of Coulee have made the painstaking decision to close the church because membership has dwindled to about 15 members.
A final regular service will be held on July 20 at 9:30 a.m., with the closing ceremony to be held on Aug. 17.
The Rev. Cole Bentley, who has pastored the church the past two years, will give way to longtime member Glen Johnson, who will give the sermon during the final worship, Aug. 17.
That service will begin at 9:30 a.m. with a dinner and program to follow. A final closing worship service is scheduled for the same day at 2 p.m.
Bishop Mark Narum has been invited, as well as former pastors and lay pastors. Tents will be set up on the grounds for people to enjoy each other’s company and the outdoors.
“A lot of churches have gone through what they are going through right now,” Bentley said. “They’ve come to a point where it’s time to close. It’s a hard thing to have to do.”
Bentley said he continues to be in awe at how the parishioners see their church, even knowing their place of worship will be closing in less than two months.
“I’ve been so amazed at the faithfullness of the church that has been entrusted to them and to where God is leading them,” Bentley said.
Bentley, who serves several churches in the parish, said he isn’t sure if this is irony or not but of all the churches he ministers, Bethlehem is the one with the most active young people.
“I’m not sure what to think about that,” he said. “I find it fascinating.”
Wayne “Webb” Naas represents three generations of his family in the congregation. His grandparents were worshippers before the church was actually built. His parents worshipped in the church their entire lives, and Naas himself said he’s been a member of the church since 1942.
Naas, who lives in Virginia now, said he certainly regrets that the church is closing, but a church without a congregation is not viable.
“When I was growing up, I remember we had vacation Bible school,” Naas said. “Now in Crowfoot Township, there are three farms. When I grew up, there were three rural schools in the township.”
He said it is a change of the times. As farms got bigger and farm families got smaller, schools and churchs on the prairie began to fade out of the picture that once saw the grounds full of parishioners on Sunday mornings.
“It’s such an irony. I played organ for the church’s centennial in 2001,” Naas said. “The church was packed and such a vibrant day. Those Norwegians can really sing. But membership was dwindling then so we knew the writing was on the wall.”
Naas recently received a letter that was sent to all members, past and present, announcing the closure of the church this coming August.
“The writing was on the wall,” he said. “It will be a bittersweet day.”
But there were thriving times at this prairie church, which is several miles southwest of Coulee on a minimum maintenance road.
In 1901 a group of Lutherans organized a congregation, offered a call to a pastor, laid the groundwork for a building, held worship services in the pastor’s nearby residence until the church was built in 1908 and since Bethlehem Lutheran has gone through a history as rich as North Dakota’s.
According to Naas, the hey day of the church may have been in the beginning when it was organized. There was a lot of enthusiasm, plenty of people who had homesteaded in Crowfoot Township and most families were much larger than today.
“There were four families on every section back then, so there were a lot of Norwegian Lutherans,” Naas said. “I believe it was at its peak when it was formed.”
He added, however, that his memory of Bible school in the 1950s tell him that the church was vibrant then and numerous children attended Bible school and church on Sunday.
Naas said his last visit to the church was in 2003 when his mother’s funeral was held there.
He said he certainly plans to attend the final worship in August.
“Its kind of a bittersweet day,” Naas said. “I really do want to be part of the closure to give it closure.”
According to Bentley, there is still some business to tend to regarding the church building, the cemetery, the treasury and other items, but for now members are focusing on Aug. 17 and what it may bring.
“It’s been an honor to serve with them,” Bentley said. “And it’s a privilege to walk with them through this.”