Hague church is unexpected delight for travelers

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Posted 5/02/17 (Tue)

Passing Dreams
By Steve Andrist

A handful of miles southeast of the Lawrence Welk homestead is the town of Hague, N.D.
Population: 71.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church there seats 400.
There was a time when its wooden pews were heavily populated by German-Russian immigrants.
Not so much anymore.
But the basilica-style church, named after and a shrine to the mother of Jesus, remains immaculate, a historic and artistic testament to the faith of Emmons County settlers. It is an iconic North Dakota treasure, simultaneously well- and little-known.
If you’re familiar with its lore, you’ve likely made the 3-mile detour off U.S. 83. Saturday afternoon, while shunning the interstate highway route home from a business meeting in Aberdeen, we decided to make the turn.
Climbing out of the Missouri River valley to the west, it takes a minute for the Hague townsite to come into view.
As soon as it does, the brick church and its spires dominate the vista.
Like the Scandinavians who settled in the northwest, the first order of business for immigrants of German descent was to provide for a place of worship.
In 1910, they built the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Strasburg. St. Mary’s went up in Hague three years earlier.
But people in and around Hague were devastated in 1929 when their church was destroyed by fire.
Later that year, as the crash of the stock market spawned the Great Depression, the cornerstone was laid for a new building in Hague.
Today, both Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Mary’s, for good reason, are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Both are unexpected delights to unsuspecting travelers.
We didn’t get inside either of them. St. Mary’s was closed, the only activity being construction workers who employed a tall, rented crane to remove shingles from the north side of the massive roof.
We arrived at Sts. Peter and Paul just as parishioners were filing in for Saturday afternoon mass.
The crown jewel of St. Mary’s is the high altar and never-ending display of religious art.
When construction was started in 1907, plans called for building a $60,000 structure with two towers and a 114-foot-tall steeple.
When renovations were being completed in 2012, the Bismarck Tribune described some of the interior features:
“St. Mary’s Catholic Church has always been among North Dakota’s most lovely churches with its soaring nave above a center aisle. Arching buttresses are beautifully stenciled and draw the eye upward where brilliant murals on the high ceiling tell the story of Mary, mother of Jesus.
“It is as compelling to look upward as it is to look forward, where the high altar is flanked by famous Chicago-made Daprato statuary — winged angels, the Holy Family, timeless and gorgeous.”
The Tribune noted at the time that the result of Vatican II in 1959 was a movement away from Latin and the ornate artistic embellishments.
The Vatican II call to simplify the church resulted in removal of many of the embellishments in many churches. In Hague, the pulpit was taken out, but  before austerity could claim the communion rail and more, parishioners put their collective foot down.
As a result, a compellingly beautiful display of religion and history was preserved on North Dakota’s prairie.
The building, though, isn’t the parish’s only claim to historical fame.
Less than a mile to the east is the historic St. Mary’s Cemetery, also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Its ornate wrought-iron crosses mark the final resting places of pioneers young and old who died from 1885 through 1914.
The crosses were fashioned by local German blacksmiths who were known for miles around for their artistic cross-making.