St. Benedict Catholic Church, with roots dating back to the fur-trade era, will be upended by diversion
St. Benedict, which has been at its rural Horace site since 1882, finds its growth potential limited by the path of the diversion channel, which the parish decided makes the location unviable over the long term.
HORACE, N.D. — The twin white steeples of St. Benedict Catholic Church have been a landmark on the prairie for more than a century after its founding by French Canadian settlers during the days of Dakota Territory.
The original St. Benedict church was built in 1888, and following a fire the current church was built in 1913. But the parish’s roots go back further, to the days of itinerant French Canadian missionary priests who established a log-cabin Holy Cross Mission, noted by federal surveyors in 1870, the year of the parish’s founding.
The growing parish, many of whose members descend from the homesteading church founders, were planning to build a larger church and social hall and, eventually, a school on this historical site a few miles south of Fargo, just west of Interstate 29.
But those plans have been upended by the diversion.
The sprawling flood-control project will alter land long ago cultivated for the first time by the first generation of St. Benedict. A 20-mile earthen embankment will include three control structures that will regulate the flow of water through a 30-mile diversion channel that will empty downstream near Georgetown, Minnesota during extreme floods.
The original diversion spared St. Benedict and nearby farmland. But that design failed to win the approval of Minnesota regulators, so officials went back to the drawing board and came up with an alternative.
The revised route will send the diversion channel just west of the church’s cemetery. Although it won’t disturb church grounds, it will make the area to the south uninhabitable and restrict growth to the west — making the St. Benedict location “untenable” in the words of church leaders.
So St. Benedict now is proceeding with its own revised plan. The church is building a 22,000-square-foot social hall in Horace that will house services until money is raised to build a new St. Benedict.
Paul Richard, a parishioner who leads the church’s building committee, said disruption caused by the diversion will have a profound effect on the parish and many of its families. His family’s ties to the area date back to 1877, when his great-grandfather immigrated to the area from Quebec.
“The farm I grew up on is going to be completely wiped out,” he said. Two years ago, he watched as a steel claw from an excavator demolished the house built by his grandfather that he and 10 siblings grew up in, the farmstead slated to be cleared to make way for the diversion.
“I don’t know if people understand the roots that are being torn up in that part of Cass County,” Richard said. “It’s really Pleasant Township,” Richard said.
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Father Louis François LaFleche was the first of a series of traveling missionary priests to serve Catholics engaged in the fur trade in the Red River Valley. From 1844 to 1856, he accompanied Métis hunters based around Pembina as they wandered the area to hunt buffalo.
Later LaFleche served as a bishop in the Canadian province of Quebec. French Canadian farmers in his flock, eager to improve their circumstances by settling on better land, asked LaFleche for guidance.
While not encouraging them to go, he advised that they could find rich soil at the confluence of the Red River and Wild Rice River, which the French called “La Riviere La Folle,” or Foolish River, according to a church history chronicling the parish’s early days.
It was at that river junction that priests established Holy Cross Mission, housed in a crude log cabin, in 1870. The original burned and was replaced by another log structure, which was moved in 1882 to the current site of St. Benedict.
The first French settler to arrive was Ulphi Cossette, a former trapper and guide to missioners in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and others followed throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s, first arriving by wagon and later by train.
Conditions were primitive for the pioneers. Rudolph Savageau’s first home was a small shack with a lean-to kitchen. Oliva Rivard recalled that her husband built a house from logs hauled two miles from tree stands along the river and filled the cracks with plaster made from buffalo manure gathered on the prairie.
A framed wooden church was built in 1888 to serve a growing parish, by then catering to Catholic homesteaders, mostly French-Canadian immigrants.
Early that year, in January of 1888, Alex Richard, Paul Richard’s great-grandfather, was caught in a raging blizzard. He spent his first night huddled in a snowbank, rousing himself every few hours to prevent being buried alive.
On the second night, the blizzard still howling, he found shelter in a shack without a roof or windows. He then managed to trudge to a neighboring farmer’s house, where his rescuers feared he might require amputated fingers or toes, which proved unnecessary.
While caught in the snowstorm with winds gusting and the temperature well below zero, Richard prayed to St. Anne and promised a pilgrimage to her shrine if he survived. He kept that promise 20 years later, returning on a vacation with his wife to Quebec, where he acquired a crown for the St. Anne statue at St. Benedict. Later, the Richard family donated a stained glass window of St. Anne at St. Benedict.
During the flood of 1897, the third highest on record, Alex Richard moved his livestock to high ground, which stayed dry. “It has been said by many that from Alex’s place looking east it was all water, and boats were the only means of transportation,” according to a family history.
Disaster also struck in the form of grasshopper infestations. In the early 1900s, parishioners fended off grasshoppers with prayers, traveling in caravans of horses, buggies and wagons to pray over fields.
“Each family prayed many rosaries that day as well as calling for the intercession of St. Anne to save their crops,” parishioners wrote in a church history. “When they were done, a cloud of grasshoppers rose into the air so thick they blocked out the sun. The grasshoppers were gone and the crops were saved.”
In 1941, almost three decades after the current St. Benedict was built, workers excavated beneath the church to create a basement. They found the remains of Father Athanase Bernier, an early parish priest who died in 1891 and had been buried under the church, an old European custom.
Bernier’s skull is enshrined in the wall near the church’s altars. He had been parish priest when the church was moved from its original site on the Wild Rice River to the current location.
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Paul Richard stood on top of an earthen dike protecting St. Benedict Catholic Church and the cemetery, where parishioners have buried generations of family members.
He pointed to the west and southwest, where the flat fields are interrupted here and there by farmsteads surrounded by shelterbelts of trees.
“All those farmsteads are going to be gone,” many of them belonging to parishioners. “All of this is going to be uninhabitable. It’s all basically historic French country.”
Far to the south, construction cranes were visible in the distance at the site where the flood-control project’s Wild Rice structure will control flows of the Wild Rice River entering the diversion channel.
Under the original project design, the diversion channel would course safely to the west before jutting north to empty downstream into the Red River. But that design was altered to gain approval of Minnesota regulators, who rejected the original.
Initially, it might have seemed as if the channel’s altered course would spare St. Benedict. The diversion channel will pass just west of the church’s 25-acre site as it runs north. But much of the area to the south of the church, which will temporarily store floodwaters during extreme floods, will become uninhabitable.
New residential development also will be limited to the west because of the diversion, Richard said, and to the north of St. Benedict, commercial development has been crowding in along 38th Street South.
“We’re being sandwiched here,” said Father Andrew Jasinski, the priest at St. Benedict.
Before the revised diversion alignment in 2018, the church had completed an expansion plan on its current site, a plan that was discarded following much “prayerful deliberation,” and decided to move to Horace, according to the parish’s website.
“You’ve got to build a church where the people are,” Richard said, noting that the move from the Wild Rice River location was to be more centrally located among parish families. “It’s a vibrant parish and we expect to grow.”
He added: “People love the parish. It’s a hard thing. Your heart tells you you should stay where you’re at, but you have to be a realist.”
The parish hopes the new social hall will be ready in late 2023 or early 2024, and leaders can’t predict when the new church can be built. The new church will incorporate design elements from the current St. Benedict, including its twin steeples, and its altars and sacred art.
Joel Paulsen, executive director of the Metro Flood Diversion Authority, agreed with Richard that efforts were made in the revised channel alignment to spare St. Benedict church and its cemetery, with preservation a goal. The realignment was the result of a task force that was formed to propose a project that would be acceptable to Minnesota regulators.
“Rural churches have been an important part of our state’s history,” he said in a statement. “We want to do what we legally can to maintain their role in our faith communities.”
Diversion officials met several times with church leaders to explain the federal and state requirements for the project in an effort to come up with a “mutually satisfactory way ahead,” Paulsen said.
“As with all property owners who may be impacted by a portion of the project, either directly, or in this case indirectly, we have ensured church leadership has access to information on the construction schedule,” he added, “and we have provided opportunities for comments, questions and discussions on ways to lessen any potential hardship.”
Parish members have accepted that they must move the church for the parish’s long-term viability, Jasinski said.
“People are resolved that we’re moving,” though are still grieving, he said. “There are some very deep feelings here about this church. This is like a dying or giving up. How do we help with that? We’re reacting to what’s going on. I wish it was different, but it’s not.”
The parish debated moving the church, but concluded that it wasn’t financially feasible, Richard said.
Although the fate of the current St. Benedict hasn’t been decided, once vacated and stripped of its sacred art, including the stained glass windows and stations of the cross, it will essentially be an empty shell, Jasinski said.
“Typically you take it down, but that decision is yet to be made,” he said. “It would be barren.”
The rectory and church education buildings also will be removed and the cleared landscape will be made to be more park-like, with plenty of room for cemetery expansion, Richard said.
The church’s uprooting mirrors the upheaval of perhaps 10 or 12 parish families whose farms are being disrupted.
George Richard, Paul’s older brother, farmed for years with another brother, Leo, on the farm established by their great-grandfather, Alex. After the farm house was demolished two years ago, he moved to Fargo.
“I lived in it all my life,” George Richard said. “They’re wiping out all the buildings” on the farmstead.
Of diversion officials, he offered a variation on the saying, “You can’t fight city hall.”: “They’re going to do what they want.”
Amy Cossette and her daughter Bernice Cossette Westby are losing their farmstead and 140 acres of land to the diversion.
“It’s been in the family for so long,” Bernice said. “It’s just hard to let it go when there is so much history behind it.”
Losing the St. Benedict church they’ve known their entire lives will be another blow. The church has been the place where so many important family milestones have been observed.
“I wish we had counted how many weddings, how many funerals, how many baptisms,” she said. “Most of us were married here. It’s hard to believe we’re not going to be here anymore.”