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Our Lady of Mount Carmel turns 100
July 19, 2019

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More than 300 people filled the only church building in Balta, a town of about 40 residents last Sunday for a special Mass celebrating the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish.

The first homesteaders in the area, Catholic Germans from Russia, had worked to bring priests and a place to worship in the early 1900s, according to parishioner Agnes Axtman, daughter of early Balta residents Paul and Clara Sand.

"My sister was the first girl born in Balta," Axtman told the Tribune.

Sand's father, a graduate of St. John's University in Minnesota, did his best as a layperson to minister to the needs of Catholics in the town. "He had catechism classes Sunday mornings down where the Farmer's Union was in Balta, in that building, and they'd meet, and he'd say the rosary, and the readings, and the gospel, and they would explain (them), but they didn't have a Mass, because they didn't have a priest," Axtman said.

A small Catholic Church about four miles northwest of Balta, had been built about the same time the town was settled. Locals knew it as "the Selz Church" according to literature collected by Axtman and two other parishioners, also descendants of early German-Russian settlers.

Jeni Heilman, a member of a family descended from settler John Heilman, said priests visited the church to celebrate Masses, with Father John Burger founding the Catholic parish, which moved to Balta after the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Saint Marie Railroad decided to locate in the community.

Heilman and Wanda Kremer spoke of past celebrations in the church with Axtman. They helped to assemble the photos and other church artifacts in a centennial directory and a church history room for the centennial.

Pointing to a brown-tinted photo depicting the church decorated with streamers and clergy facing the altar, Heilman said to Axtman, "This is a picture of an ordination, right?"

Axtman nodded.

"This might help you with the dates the church actually was done," Heilman continued. "Our rectory was onsite until 2002. It was built first in 1917, and unoccupied. And then, the actual building was finished in 1919."

The former rectory is now a private home, located north of Rugby on North Dakota Highway 3.

Father Brian Bachmeier, who since 2010 has traveled from Esmond and Fessenden for Masses at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, walked through the church, describing the community and building.

"The settlement groups that came here, almost all the land around here - was settled by German Russian Catholics. They were here, so their relatives came here," Bachmeier noted.

"The church was built in 1919, and they took this high altar and these side altars from that previous church that was out there (northwest of Balta)," Bachmeier said, pointing out sharp spires on the altars snug inside rounded arches.

"You can tell these weren't original, because the style of the church is Neo-Romanesque with the rounded arches and ceilings; these are Gothic-style altars. That previous church had the Gothic architecture, so, these altars in a sense don't match the architecture, but most people don't know the difference," Bachmeier added.

"They (the altars) fit well, and I think the church may have designed these niches purposely for these altars to fit in there, but you'll notice these altars, with their pointed arch, but these" he said, pointing to Stations of the Cross plaques "have a rounded arch; the windows rounded arch."

Thin metal beams near the top of the rounded walls now support the church's interior, an addition that Bachmeier arranged with architects to address the aging building's condition.

Stained glass windows follow the same rounded arch pattern. The windows bear the names of the families who donated funds to the church for their installation, with the German "und" for "and" linking the names of husbands and wives.

Another window, near the stairway to the choir loft, indicates " jung frau und junglinge" or "young women and young men" are responsible for its purchase and placement.

As with many century-old buildings, the church has plenty of stories attached, including a whodunit mystery and a miracle.

The mystery involved the altars from the original church northwest of town, which were to be moved to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

"The (people) out there (at the location of the former church) didn't want to move there and thought if they destroyed the stuff out there, they'd have no recourse but not to move into Balta," Axtman said.

Axtman recalled her parents telling her a farmer near the location of the old church awoke one winter night to the sound of his barking dogs. The noise alerted him to a disturbance at the church, but vandals who broke into the building escaped before he could arrive. The church's main altar, made in about 1900, was left with several holes in the back.

"My parents told me they never said who it was I could tell they had strong suspicions who they were, but they never said the name. But a priest asked me why they didn't tell the person's name, and I said I think they were told not to mention any name because all it would do was stir up more trouble," Axtman said.

Another smaller controversy grew around the fact the mostly Catholic public school students in early Balta were for a time taught by nuns, leaving the few non-Catholic students to spend time in study hall while religion class was taught. Lay teachers began working at the school in the 1940s.

Parishioners also speak of a miracle of sorts that took place in the early 1980s.

"Inside of the church, we always think it has some sort of holy specialness," Heilman said. "One time the Easter candle was left burning accidentally, and it started the carpeting on fire, and the candle fell over and dropped the baptismal font over the fire, which put out the fire."

"That was around 1981," Kremer said. "That was Father Leiphon. Because I remember he took water out of the fish aquarium and blessed it and blessed my daughter with it," she laughed.

Father Don Leiphon served as a con-celebrant of last week's centennial Mass, while Most Reverend John Folda, Bishop of Fargo, was the principal celebrant.

During his homily, Folda requested attendees to "take a moment to give thanks for our ancestors and our neighbors." Folda spoke of the struggles the early settlers endured in founding the parish, noting, "It was the faith in God that sustained them."

After the mass, parishioners and attendees reminisced and listened to a spoken presentation by Bachmeier, Leiphon, now chaplain at Sisters of Mary of the Presentation in Valley City, and Father Jose Shaji, who is now at St. Anselm Church in San Francisco.

Axtman sang "Grosser God," or "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," and Folda led grace before a meal served after the program.

During grace, Folda gave thanks for the people whose lives the church touched many of them families and descendants of Balta's settlers.

" We ask you to bless all of us all those who have gone before us and those who will come after us to carry on this great work of faith," Folda prayed.

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