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Prestsvarðan - Marking a Miracle


By Natalie Kruse


Reverend Sigurður Brynjólfsson Sivertsen's Cairn
Reverend Sigurður Brynjólfsson Sivertsen's Cairn, Prestsvarðan, which means “Priest’s Guard” in English

On June 26th, 2023, several members of the congregation of Útskálakirkja (Útskálar Church) and others from the surrounding area on the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland hiked the rugged terrain to a rock cairn in Leira while torrential rain covered them. There, a summer Mass was held at a place called Prestsvarðan, which means “Priest’s Guard” in English.

Exactly one year prior, on June 26th, 2022, I was standing before that cairn with my husband, our four adult children, and two sons-in-laws learning from historian Hörður Gíslason and friend Sjana Kjartans, about the amazing man who marked that sacred place on the ground where God had protected him. That man was my three-time Great-Grandfather, Reverend Sigurður Brynjólfsson Sivertsen.

While rock cairns are prevalent in Iceland as historical markers for navigation, this particular cairn was purposefully constructed in 1876 to mark the exact place where a miracle happened. This cairn was different from others in another way, too. Reverend Sivertsen engraved a bible verse into a slab of stone to express his gratitude for the mercy God showed in sparing his life.

On that day in June 2022, my family and I arrived in Iceland for the first time. We had never been to this beautiful country, even though we are of Icelandic descent. Our ancestry had been lost to our family for generations due to the circumstances surrounding my Great-Grandmother’s arrival in America as a young child. She and her siblings were orphaned shortly after coming to Chicago, Illinois with their father, Pall Eggerz, in 1891. It has taken me several decades to uncover the mysterious and tragic events that unfolded to create the chasm of lost history of our family heritage.


When I discovered our lineage to the Eggerz and Sivertsen families in Iceland, I was in awe of their deep love and commitment to the land and people of Iceland. Our family's direct Sivertsen line exists only in the United States. Our trip to Iceland was, in part, to reconcile my family’s lost history and to bridge our past with our current family so future generations would be aware of our ancestors who had lived in Iceland since settlement times. The more I learned about my Icelandic relatives, the more I came to love and respect them.

I knew that the first day I stepped foot in Iceland, I wanted to immediately go to Garður, just a few miles from the airport in Keflavík. My heart had been residing there ever since I learned of Útskálakirkja. My three-time Great-Grandfather, Reverend Sigurður Brynjólfsson Sivertsen, had been the minister at Útskálar Church for fifty years. Four years before that, he was the associate pastor there when my four-time Great-Grandfather, Reverend Brynjólfsson Sivertsen, was the minister.


Útskálar Church
Útskálar Church

When the two rental cars holding all eight adult members of our family arrived at the church, the moment was pure joy. The pristine, white church with the green roof was near the sea and my Facebook friend from Garður, Sjana Kjartans, was standing at the church entrance with outstretched arms, awaiting an embrace.

Inside the church, the historian, Hörður Gíslason, motioned for us to sit in the front pews. Time stood still it seemed, as he welcomed us to this historic moment where the past collided with the present, and all of those lost years vanished in an instant. This was also when the people of that community were learning that Reverend Sivertsen’s family line had not ended with the loss of his four grandchildren in America. Two of his four grandchildren had survived and gone on to have families of their own after being adopted into separate American families. Also greeting our family that day was Reverend Sigurður Grétar Sigurðsson, the current minister of Útskálakirkja. He also reverberated the accolades concerning my three-time Great-Grandfather, saying that no one from Iceland will ever forget his name or what he had done for Iceland and warmly said “Welcome home” to us as we stood in the church that Reverend Sivertsen had built.


 left of photo is my 4x great grandfather (Reverend Brynjolfur Sivertsen) and grandmother and the one on the right is my 3x great grandfather (Reverend S. B. Sivertsen) and grandmother (Helga Helgadottir)
The headstone on the left is the author's 4x great-grandfather (Reverend Brynjólfsson Sivertsen) and gr-grandmother and the one on the right is her 3x great-grandfather (Reverend S. B. Sivertsen) and gr-grandmother (Helga Helgadóttir)

After we visited Reverend S. B. Sivertsen’s grave, which was located behind the church with his wife, Helga, his daughter, Ragnheiður (my two-time Great-Grandmother), and six of their other children who had never lived past the age of three, we drove the short distance from the church to a parking area where we then walked the difficult terrain to Prestsvarðan.

Looking back forty years, my teenage self, who had read dozens of gothic novels and mysteries over the years - all set in exotic far-off lands where unshared family secrets lay at the heart of each plot - could never have envisioned a more surreal and exciting story than my own family story which culminated on that Sunday when my family and I were in Iceland, trekking across a barren moor with Hörður and Sjana looking for a rock cairn that was erected one hundred forty-six years earlier.

The wind blew so fiercely from the sea over the land that we had trouble keeping our balance on the rock-laden, uncultivated earth. I needed assistance choosing my steps from my husband, Jamie, as we hiked the lengthy distance to a destination we would never have been able to find on our own.

We arrived at Prestsvarðan where there was only sky, earth, and rock in all directions. Reverend Sigurður Brynjólfsson Sivertsen experienced the miracle at this spot on January 22nd, 1876 when he was sixty-eight years old. He survived seventeen hours exposed to the elements in an Icelandic blizzard. He was so grateful to God for his survival that he not only erected the cairn; he also had a large stone engraved with a bible verse taken from the book of Psalm 4:9 In peace I lie down and sleep, for only with your help, O Lord, can I rest secure.

These are the words of Reverend Sigurður Brynjólfsson Sivertsen (His words were included as a footnote in his funeral book entitled Útfararminning Síra Sigurðar Brynjólfssonar Sivertsens) about this monumental event translated from Icelandic to English by Dr. Jackson Crawford:


What happened to me on the Saturday night of January 22, 1876.


The evening before, I parted company from my fellow traveler at Holmsberg, I could not see the road in front of me because the snowfall had turned into a blizzard with freezing temperatures and the snow covered everything. I was able to make it slightly south of the road just above Leira. There I had to lie down because the weather had become terrible, the horse had run away from me and I could not go on. I lay down on the open ground in the snow and gave myself into the hands of God; I did not expect to survive such weather, but I felt that a tent was over me the whole night, and I certainly was under the Lord’s protective tent. All night my son and parishioners searched for me, but in the morning one of my serfs and another from my son found me barely conscious. I was severely weakened. I soon became stronger and by the grace of God, I was not permanently harmed. I will never forget this incident and the mercy of God as long as I live. I was thought to have perished by all, but those are spared whom God spares and those are saved whom God saves.’’


“He had then been exposed to the elements for seventeen hours. The next morning, January 23rd, which was a Sunday, he got up and insisted on giving his sermon, but those who cared for him most did not think he was well enough and would not let him do that. This shows his great courage and excellent sense of duty.”

It is my understanding, Prestsvarðan stood intact for many years after the death of Reverend Sivertsen, who died on May 24th, 1887 at the age of seventy-nine. According to an account in the writings of a ship owner named Tryggva Ofeigsson, the cairn was intact in the 1920s. Sometime after that, the cairn collapsed partially and was challenging to locate.

A man named Ragnar Snaer Karlsson and his brother-in-law went searching for the cairn in the late 1970s and could not see it but decided to rest in the middle of the heath. In Ragnar’s own words from his written account, he states… “My brother-in-law and I had made several searches for the cairn but without success. When we got to this half-collapsed cairn, we decided to sit down and rest a bit. Then all of a sudden, it occurred to me to roll over a big stone that was lying there like in a pit. When we turned it over, we saw that here was the stone with the Psalm verse on it. So we piled some stones on a platform and placed the stone where it is now. The verse on the stone is and was illegible at the time, but later in the winter, I went and shoveled snow into the stone and it was then easier to distinguish what was written on it. The stone appears to read:


1876 JAN 21 IN PEACE I LIE

FOR PEACE I AM FOR YOU

ALONE THE LORD IS THAT

MAKES ME LIVE SECURE IN GRACE.


This verse is clearly from David’s Psalm, Chapter 4, Verse 9: 'In peace I lie down to rest and sleep because you, Lord, let me dwell safely in graces.'”

Additionally, Ragnar states, “The funniest thing about this story is that my brother-in-law, Reverend Hjortur Magni Johansson, who was then a student at Sudurnesja Polytechnic, was later ordained as a priest at Útskálar.” Útskálakirkja was the same church where Reverend Sigurður Brynjólfsson Sivertsen had served as minister for half a century.

Similarly, I believe it is truly another miracle - or series of miracles - that led me and my family to Garður, Iceland where Reverend S. B. Sivertsen is still remembered as a beloved man in their community. He has been described as a remarkable man who gave to the poor; cared for the sick and helpless; had a new church built in 1861; founded and built the children’s school; sponsored young people for further education; gave medication and medical advice free of charge to people in his community and surrounding areas; was an advocate for lepers; cultivated land and helped farmers; and wrote books about the area, including memory books of loved ones and community members, and special prayer books for children.

The miracle I am speaking about that brought me to Iceland to walk across the moors near Leira and caused me to sit in Útskálakirkja where my three-times Great-Grandfather preached, was an answer to a prayer spoken when I was nine years old, which was to one day find out who our Icelandic families were. That prayer said almost fifty years ago, ironically, led me to a beautiful church by the sea and a memorial cairn where people take pilgrimages to pray and pay their respects to my three-time Great-Grandfather. Reverend Sivertsen was so grateful to have been protected that bitterly cold and stormy night in January of 1876 when he thought his life would end that he marked the exact place where God granted a miracle of survival.


Sjana Kartjans, Natalie Kruse holding the framed bible verse and Reverend Sigurdur Gretar Sigurdsson.
Sjana Kartjans, Natalie Kruse holding the framed bible verse, and Reverend Sigurður Grétar Sigurðsson in Útskálakirkja .

In my own way, I also marked the miracle of my prayer of finding my Icelandic family with a bible verse written on a framed work of art that I gifted to Útskálakirkja and a congregation who still hold dear the memory of Reverend Sivertsen, with these words from Psalm 100:5, "For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever. His faithfulness continues through all generations."


I am also trying to get a paved path to Prestsvardan, along with Sjana Kartjans, Helga Ingimundardóttir, and others from the Garður area who want Prestsvarðan to be accessible to all. This would also be a historic landmark that honors the memory of a man who was a faithful servant to the people of Iceland.

These words were published in the book entitled Útfararminning Síra Sigurðar Brynjólfssonar Sivertsens by publishers Prentsmiðja S. Eymundssonar and S. Jónssonar (c.1887) and contributors Jón Þorkelsson and Þórarinn Böðvarsson after the death of Reverend S. B. Sivertsen:


The memory of this worthy priest will be recorded in the history of the Church of Iceland, and will never grow old, while our land is inhabited and our language is read, for the masterpiece praises the master, and his name is graven in the hearts of his friends, just as it is inscribed in the Book of Life."

While those in Iceland remember him with great fondness as an exceptional historical figure, it is the family he loved so dearly, through circumstances beyond their control, who would have no memory of him, severed from Iceland and living across the ocean. The sojourn into my family’s Icelandic past came full circle as I stood at Prestsvarðan with the powerful wind blowing over the ancient heath from the sea, filling me with such gratitude to know of this beloved man.

Sjana has relayed to me that it was no accident that the Mass held at Prestsvarðan that rainy day in June of this year also marked my family's journey the year prior, standing on that sacred ground where miracles happen. The Mass held at Prestsvarðan is to become an annual event in Iceland. I hope to stand there again one day, holding the hands of my grandchildren as I tell them about Prestsvarðan, their generous and loving four-time Great-Grandfather, and the miracles in our family.


(L-R) Natalie's son Michael, son Jacob, Natalie Kruse, historian Hörður Gíslason, Natlie's daughter Meridith, and Sjana Kjartans at Prestsvardan.
(L-R) Natalie's son Michael, son Jacob, Natalie Kruse, historian Hörður Gíslason, Natlie's daughter Meridith, and Sjana Kjartans at Prestsvarðan in June 2023.

Postscript:


(This family story) is very dear to my heart and I can't begin to tell you how rewarding my journey into my family's past has been. It has been my life's work to discover this mystery in my family and I know for certain it is what I was meant to do in my lifetime. The amazing, loving people I have met along the way have brought such joy and light into my life and I am so excited and grateful to be able to share it with others who will understand the significance of reclaiming our past in a land that means so much to all of us.

-Natalie Kruse


 Natalie's family minus son in law Jake Groves who is taking the photo- from left to right is daughter Elizabeth Groves, daughter Meridith Anderson, Son-in-law Jonathan Anderson, son Jacob Kruse, son Michael Kruse, Me, and husband Jamie Kruse.
Natalie's family (minus son-in-law Jake Groves who took the photo. (L-R) daughter Elizabeth Groves, daughter Meridith Anderson, Son-in-law Jonathan Anderson, son Jacob Kruse, son Michael Kruse, Natalie, and husband Jamie Kruse.

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