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ERIC BERGESON COLUMN: Norman Church

While driving through the fog a couple of weeks ago, I passed old Norman Lutheran Church four miles from the home place. Long closed and getting more dilapidated by the year, the mists made the building look eerie enough to photograph.

While driving through the fog a couple of weeks ago, I passed old Norman Lutheran Church four miles from the home place. Long closed and getting more dilapidated by the year, the mists made the building look eerie enough to photograph.

But I was already late to where I was going, so I roared right past.

I probably should have stopped for a picture. The next day was clear and sunny. I drove the same route. As I approached Norman Church again, I saw smoke. With the steeple set neatly off to one side, the remainder of the building had been pushed into a pile and was on fire.

Sad, but inevitable. There was no money to keep the building in presentable shape. A couple of years ago, I looked into moving Norman Church onto our farm, but when the estimate came back, the decimal point was too far to the right. Part of me was relieved.

So, the little white church across the field is gone.

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I wasn't a member, but I attended several Luther Leagues and handful of funerals at Norman Church over the years.

While the adults lingered over lunch after Luther League, we kids would riot upstairs in the sanctuary, pound on the piano, play tag, walk on the pews, slide down the railings, scribble in the guest book.

Every country church has members who were institutions. Norman Church's main institution, at least in my memory, was Mabel. Mabel played piano and organ at Norman for the bulk of the last century.

It was best that Norman Church closed before Mabel passed away. Norman without Mabel at the keyboard would have been just plain wrong.

Lena was another institution at Norman Church. A gentle angel of a woman, I remember Lena serving coffee in the Norman Church basement with her painfully arthritic fingers. If I remember right, Norman never had running water, so Lena, or somebody, had to bring water from home.

Oscar and Inga also had their own pew. Dignified rural aristocrats, Oscar and Inga had a farmstead near Norman Church that was so spotless and neat that you wonder how they got anything else done.

My most vivid memory of Norman Church was Oscar's funeral. The spray on the casket consisted of nothing more than a few strands of wheat. From the entry, Oscar's granddaughter played a lonely Norwegian melody on the violin.

I sat in the back pew, which at Norman wasn't so far from the front pew. I remember being impressed by the dignity of the affair. The pallbearers, farmers all, most of them retired, were dressed to the nines. Mabel was at the organ. The minister emerged from the side room in his robes, taking care to shut the door quietly behind him.

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When the congregation rose, the floor creaked and groaned as if it was about to give way. If anybody shifted their weight during the creeds, there'd be more creaking. Norman Church could talk.

It hit me at Oscar's service that the whole scene - those dignified old farmers, the lunch in the musty basement, the spotless farmsteads across the field, the remnants of Norwegian heritage, the gothic wooden windows, the creaking pews, the big steeple with the enormous bell - wasn't long for this world.

It wasn't. Most of the people at Oscar's funeral are gone, and now the church is too.

In retrospect, there was no saving the rural Minnesota culture represented by Norman Church. That social structure was premised upon big families living on farms of 250 acres, a situation which just wasn't going to continue.

Those who lived through those old times remember the hard times, too. Many of them aren't as nostalgic as I am for reminders of a past which, to them at least, was a whole lot of hard work.

But I consider myself lucky to have caught the tail end of a noble way of life, and to have known some of the dignified souls who so carefully built what has now disappeared.

Visit Eric's Web site at www.countryscribe.com

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