-The project will tell the story of Vikur Lutheran Church and the Mountain settlement
By Loretta Thorfinnson Bernhoft and Sandy Matthiason Wright
The Vikur Lutheran Church located in Mountain, North Dakota will turn 140 years old in 2024. It is the oldest Icelandic Church in North America and welcomes visitors from all over the USA as well as abroad. It is truly amazing to read the
names of guests who have signed the church guestbook.
But so often, no one is around to share information about the church and the surrounding settlements. To improve the experience for visitors, our goal is to create permanent storyboards displayed outside the church where visitors can find the story in words and pictures. We hope to have the
storyboards in place for the 125th Icelandic Deuce of August celebration in 2024.
Immigrants from Iceland left their home country under dire circumstances to find a new life in America. They faced many hardships including diseases, language barriers, and harsh North Dakota weather—many obstacles the likes of which we have never had to endure! However, they had no choice but to survive. The strong Icelandic spirit has been kept alive through the years and their story is one that we must never forget!
For those who have had the privilege of traveling to Iceland, you know that the
Vikur Church resembles many of the churches found there. As visitors from Iceland
tour the area, they are amazed at the resemblances. It has always been a priority to
maintain this building not only as a place of worship but also as a tribute to our
ancestors who sacrificed much to build a new life in America.
The church and the community are historically important not only to the local community but also to the larger Icelandic North American community. Several key elements are:
Placement on the National Register of Historical Places
In 2014, the Vikur Church was placed on the National Register of Historical Places.
The church met three criteria to qualify for this distinction:
1. ‘It has statewide significance for the patterns of events associated with
settlement and the social history of Icelandic-Americans prior to the North
Dakota statehood and as an embodiment of distinct cultural heritage
2. ‘The property’s direct associations with Pastor Pall Thorlakson, and his role
in establishing both Icelandic=American settlement in Pembina County (from
3. ‘The property has local significance for its architecture and construction of
Late Gothic Revival architecture on the territorial frontier.’
The role of Women of the Church
The Icelandic women played a huge role in the furnishing of this church. Organized
in 1883, the ladies wasted no time in working to supply items such as the baptismal
font, pulpit, pews, wood heater, lamp fixtures, the two chancel chairs, the
communion silver, an organ, and the bell and altar cloths. Some of these items are
on display in the church basement and others are still used in the sanctuary. The
Lutheran Church Woman (LCW) continues to exist today. Although few in number,
the Vikur LCW coordinates and serves lunches following funerals, as well as
organizing the Salad Luncheon at the annual Icelandic Deuce of August celebration.
They contribute to the Pembina Hills Lutheran Church as well as several other
organizations locally. The Vikur LCW is spearheading the effort to preserve the
history of the church and surrounding settlement through the storyboards project.
Séra Páll Þorláksson and the Settlement
Séra (Pastor) Páll Þorláksson is known as ‘‘The Father of the Icelandic Settlement in Dakota“. His name and his story are legendary to those of Icelandic descent growing up in the Icelandic communities of northeastern North Dakota. Even today it is not
uncommon to hear him mentioned in conversations among local residents. The name Séra Páll brings to mind the young pioneer pastor of strong faith and
character who led our forebearers to Dakota and cared for their spiritual as well as physical needs.
The story of Séra Páll and the story of the settlement of Mountain are intertwined. Páll Þorláksson was one of the first immigrants to leave Iceland and venture to
North America. In the early 1870‘s, Páll and another group of Icelanders made their way to Quebec and then south to the Milwaukee area. In the next years, more and more Icelanders joined the growing community. From there, some of the Icelanders traveled further west to the Minneota, Minnesota area while another group went north and west to Gimli, Manitoba.
The Gimli community continued to grow as immigrants came directly to the area. Conditions in Gimli, however, became extremely difficult for the new settlers. In addition to disease and harsh weather, the cultivation of the land was proving unsustainable. The settlers began to wonder if life in this new land was any better than what they left behind in Iceland.
Before he left Iceland, Páll Þorláksson had been very well educated. After coming to
America he furthered his theological education at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.
His first call to the ministry was with the Icelandic congregation in Shawano County,
Wisconsin. As a committed pastor, he also felt a strong responsibility for the
physical needs of his fellow Icelanders. His devotion led him to join the Gimli group
in 1877. The reality of the harsh conditions in Gimli was clear. Séra Páll encouraged
the move south of the border to what is now Pembina County and in 1878 the first
By 1879 the settlement of the present-day site of Mountain, originally named ‘‘Vik“, was established. Icelandic settlements at Gardar, Hallson and Akra were also established around this time.
Land claims were available under the Homestead Act and the new settlers utilized this option where possible. Séra Páll was also able to obtain land and a large portion of Mountain sits on land originally owned by Páll and members of his family. Early life on this prairie was brutal and the settlers faced numerous obstacles. Money was scarce for the needed livestock, equipment and seed. Séra Páll, using his reputation and good name as collateral, was able to obtain loans of cash as well as needed livestock, equipment and other necessities from Norwegian Lutheran congregations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The loans were repaid in full in about three years.
In November of 1880, Séra Páll accepted a call as Pastor of the Vikur Lutheran
congregation in Mountain. Services were initially held in his log home which he
needed to enlarge in 1881 to provide adequate space for the gatherings. Séra Páll
knew the congregation needed a church building as soon as possible and donated a
portion of his homestead land for that purpose. Vikur Lutheran Church as we know
it today was erected on that land in 1884.
Séra Páll suffered from tuberculosis and his health was failing for the last years of
his short life. In spite of this, he continued to work tirelessly for the needs of the
pioneer people for whom he felt a great responsibility. Séra Páll passed away on
March 12, 1882, at the age of thirty-three. The bitter winter kept his congregation
from laying him to rest until April 2nd of that year. A tall, slim white monument
marks the final resting place of Séra Páll, close to Vikur, the oldest Icelandic Church
in North America.
The Vikur Cemetery surrounds Vikur Lutheran Church to the west and south. It has
the distinction of being one of only two cemeteries in the United States located on
the main street of a city; the other being in Boston. The land for the cemetery was
donated by Séra Páll Þorláksson in 1881 along with the land for the church. Sadly,
Séra Páll became one of the first buried here following his death in 1882.
In the center of the cemetery is a large granite stone with a bronze plaque that reads:
‘‘Largest Icelandic Settlement in the United States, Pembina, Hallson, Akra 1878, Mountain and Gardar 1879. By the Pioneer Daughters 1948 on the site of the first Icelandic Lutheran Church in America, 1884“
This stone sits where the altar was located before the church was moved in 1947 to the present site just a few feet north. The outline of the original log church is also marked out around the granite stone.
A tall white monument is prominently located toward the front of the cemetery and marks the resting place of Séra Páll. It was gifted by his congregation and placed in the cemetery in 1894. As one wanders around this beautiful old cemetery, it is easy to stop and admire other stones.
Many contain inscriptions, often in Icelandic, that shed some light on the lives of these pioneers. Other inscriptions are beginning to fade with time but the names are recognizable. We can only begin to imagine the stories that belong to these courageous Icelandic pioneers.
Information from Icelandic Roots shows there were 134 burials in the Vikur
Cemetery extending up to 1914.
Headstones or markers are visible for many of the graves. The others are either unmarked or the markers have been displaced or covered through time and erosion. In 2020 the stones were all cleaned, leaving the cemetery looking refreshed and the writing on the stones somewhat easier to decipher.
We hope to have more complete cemetery information available for cemetery visitors soon. This will enable visitors to easily look at a list of burial names and dates and see whether or not there is a visible marker. We also hope to link the family names of those buried at Vikur since Icelandic names can be confusing. Our storyboards will enhance this beautiful space and will help us preserve the heritage and story of all our Icelandic pioneer forefathers.
Keeping the Story Alive
Over the years numerous improvements have been made to this historical church,
such as re-shingling, steel siding, new flooring, painting the interior, newer pews,
and a kitchen remodel to name a few. These projects have only been possible
because of the support we have received from Vikur family and friends near and far.
We know the love for this church is shared by many and we want to keep the story
alive for generations to come. Please consider helping us with our storyboards
project. You can do this by purchasing a commemorative Vikur ornament through
the link listed below or by making a donation using the link. You can also send
contributions directly to the Vikur LCW at P.O. Box 155, Mountain, ND 58262.
Please put “storyboards” in the memo.
Please make sure to check our Facebook group (Vikur Lutheran Church) for current
pictures of Vikur and updates on our storyboards project.