Updated: May 27, 2020
Church Interior by Shirley J Olgeirson
Burning Church by Larry Biri, Walsh County Record
Come visit the Thingvalla Lutheran Church Memorial.
In 1889, the Icelandic immigrants in Thingvalla Township, Pembina County, North Dakota, organized the Thingvalla Lutheran Church. The church was dedicated August 9, 1893 and it burned to the ground in an accidental fire June 3, 2003. Here is a little bit of history about the church and some photos.
The Eyford Ladies Aid was formed in 1892 and they made many contributions. Their first purchase was a bell to place in the 52-foot bell tower. The photo here is what the bell looks like now. It is just a charred, cracked, and bent shell of what it used to be.
The church’s foundation was preserved while cleaning up after the fire and a living prairie memorial garden was planted within the foundation. A stone walkway, which mimics the original aisles of the church, was also installed to lead visitors through the imaginary walls of the church. The prairie garden work was mostly done by Susan Sigurdson and her husband, Tim Powers.
The original church structure was 26 x 40 feet. The construction cost was about $2500 or about $65,000 today. The land was donated by one of the earliest homesteaders, Jón Ásmundsson from Kolfreyjustaður. The original committee to solicit collections toward building a church was composed of Jakob Eyford, Bjarni Dagsson, and Ólafur Ólafsson (my great-grandfather). The church and their religion were very important to the pioneer’s life. They worked together to build a beautiful church in the center of their community, which was called Eyford.
The church was considered unique because of its original interior artifacts, including the pump organ, altar statue, raised pulpit, original pews, and its similarity to Þingvellir in Iceland. This site was and still remains a very popular place for the Icelandic tourists to visit. The statue of Christ on the altar was of particular significance to parishioners and was a part of the church when it was constructed in 1892. The original copy of this statue was created by Bertel Thorvaldsen, who was the son of an Icelander who settled in Denmark.
The Thingvalla Congregation chose to purchase a 6 foot replica of the Thorvaldsen Christus as a hallmark to grace the altar area of the remaining church foundation. It is much larger than the original altar statue but with heaven as the ceiling, we knew that a small statue would be too diminutive.
Many photos and the story of our Icelandic ancestors and the Thingvalla Church are now immortalized by six storyboard panels at the memorial site. I designed and researched for five of the panels. Arlan Steinolfson did one that shows a homestead map. It was a great project and the site was dedicated August 2, 2007.
At the dedication ceremony, Susan Sigurdson made a great presentation about the Living Prairie Garden. Part of her speech is as follows: “One idea was to return the church site to its original form – a prairie with native grasses again waving in the breeze, with wildflowers bursting forth in their appointed time. Sometimes the garden’s unruly appearance aggravates those who think a garden should be neat rows of orderly flowers, landscaped to perfection. But God’s prairie gardens are not orderly – they are free-flowing – ever-changing, with strong roots to nourish and sustain them through the heat of the summer and cold of the winter.”
In this photo with the flags of North Dakota, Iceland, and the USA, you can see the burial-place of the famous poet, K.N. Júlíus. He who worked as a farm hand and grave-digger in the area and he would probably find a humorous line or two for us even today. Icelandic visitors come to Thingvalla and visit his grave and read his poetry. I will write about him another day!
We respect our Icelandic ancestors for their courage and determination to leave their beloved homeland, friends, and relatives to move to an unknown land and strive for success in America. They worked hard to build a life and a community based on strong moral values, faith in God, devotion to family, and the importance of a good education. May God bless them, and may their noble, independent spirits live on in their descendants.