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Published December 02, 2013, 09:17 AM

Mountain, N.D., church placed on national historic register

Vikur Lutheran Church in Mountain, N.D., may be the oldest Icelandic church in America, but it wasn't until November that it got on the National Register of Historic Places, according to federal records.

By: Tu-Uyen Tran, WDAZ

Vikur Lutheran Church in Mountain, N.D., may be the oldest Icelandic church in America, but it wasn't until November that it got on the National Register of Historic Places, according to federal records.

The church might have gotten on the register sooner, except it was moved about 100 yards down the road in the 1950s, said Loretta Bernhoft. She was part of the registration effort. She said it typically isn't open to properties that were moved in the last 50 years.

The white church with the Icelandic-flag stained-glass window was built in 1884, when Icelanders had just moved to northeast North Dakota.

Originally, Bernhoft said, it wasn't much different than a log cabin. An addition that includes the spire and the sacristy was added later, she said.

But, nevertheless, it's as Icelandic and historic as a church here can get.

"We have bus loads of people from Iceland that come each summer. When they look at it, they say, 'Uh-huh, very similar to the church we have back in Iceland,'" said Bernhoft, who, besides being a Vikur church member, is also honorary Icelandic consul to North Dakota.

Also going on the national register in November was the Edinburg, N.D., auditorium, built by the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era. It now houses the General Store.

Mountain is about 87 miles by road from Grand Forks. Edinburg is about 13 miles south of Mountain.

Out of poverty

The idea for a church in Mountain came from the Rev. Paul Thorlaksson, a young minister born near Husavik, Iceland, according to Icelandic Roots, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve the heritage of Icelanders in America. He donated land for the future Vikur church, but would succumb to tuberculosis before it was built.

Icelanders were just beginning to settle in the Mountain area at that time in the late 1870s, many coming at the urging of Thorlaksson, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The community was still very poor - some of the settlers having arrived on foot rather than ox cart or horses - too poor to build a church. Thorlaksson did his preaching in private homes.

By 1880, after a good harvest, they began to plan for a church. Thorlaksson donated his land in 1881 and died the next year. His flock would continue his work.

Bernhoft said several farmers had to mortgage their lands to raise funds for the church's construction. "It was very important for them to have a place to gather as a group. That became the hub of the community. It was a place they could all be together and worship."

A lot has changed at the Vikur church since that time. Besides the addition, there's new siding, new pews, a basement and, of course, electricity.

Bernhoft said the original kerosene lamps, arranged like a chandelier, remains, but church members don't dare light it anymore. "Being novices with that, we didn't know how to adjust it. Most of us sat coughing through Christmas service, black smoke everywhere. We finally said we're not going to do this anymore. So it's just for looks."

A symbol

But the church remains, if not the historic original, at least a symbol of a historic time when Icelanders were putting down roots in America.

Vikur remains a key part of the heritage in Mountain, more so than any other church, Bernhoft said. It's still a key part of the annual August the Deuce celebration of Icelandic-American culture and visited often by Icelanders from Iceland. And it still draws former church members who now live far away; they ask to be buried in the Vikur church cemetery when they die.

Bernhoft said she worries about the future of Icelandic community in Mountain, though.

Those who ask to be buried at Vikur are probably married to Icelanders from Mountain, so there's a "double allegiance" to the area, she said. Today, children from the area spread out and marry people in other ethnic groups, she said, and she worries if they'll still feel the same pull. Her two sons, for example, married Norwegian girls, she said.

"My grandparents came over from Iceland and my kids can't say that," she said.