Youthful crew giving life to 133-year-old house of worship on Fond du Lac Reservation
SAWYER, Minn. — Deacon Bryan Bassa stood on the bare ground in the filtered light of a small log building. The fragrance of wet earth and fresh-cut wood combined around him. The sound of hammers ringing on the roof above him were, to Bassa, as sweet as the music that once filled this original home of Saints Mary & Joseph Catholic Church.
"When I became a deacon seven years ago, six years ago, this was my goal: to get this church fixed," the 69-year-old retired schoolteacher said. "This is history. This is the history of the people around here."
Built in 1884, originally one log wide and one log long, as a mission church in the Fond du Lac Reservation, the church fell into disuse after a more spacious brick church was built just to the south in 1964. For more than 50 years, there hasn't been any practical need for what's commonly known as the Old Log Church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
But, parishioners say, there has been a strong sentimental and emotional need.
"I was baptized in this church, made my first communion and my solemn communion in this church," said Barb Omar during a conversation at the doorway of the Old Log Church. "So it has a lot of meaning to a lot of us in my generation. I live just down the road and would go by it every day and couldn't bear to see it fall down, be torn down."
This year, after several years of consideration and preparation, the church on Mission Road a mile north of state Highway 210 is getting new life.
The church had received gifts to invest on the project, significantly enhanced by $128,000 from a Catholic foundation, Bassa said. The parish has gotten more bang for its buck by turning to Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps for much of the work.
Founded in 2011 by Duluth photographer Rolf Hagberg, Northern Bedrock employs Americorps volunteers for restoration projects across Minnesota.
"We're really working to get young people in the next generation interested in historic preservation trades," said Laurel Eaton, the organization's development director. "We have a lot of old structures that need maintenance and repair, but the people who know how to do that are aging out of the workforce."
Northern Bedrock hires three six-person crews for a work season that begins in May and runs until just before Thanksgiving. This year, more than 70 people applied for the 18 slots, available to people ages 18-25, Eaton said. They work on a variety of projects during the course of the season, in eight-day "hitches," during which they camp near the site. The workers receive a living stipend.
One of those hitches, which began Wednesday, was the sixth this year at the Old Log Church, Eaton said. Two more are planned before Thanksgiving, one of which will involve two crews working together.
On Thursday, the crew was beginning to replace the cedar shake roof. They worked under the guidance of a specialist, Tim Lang of Glenwood, Minnesota, who has been in the construction business since the mid-1980s. Already signed on for a Northern Bedrock project in Glenwood, Lang said he agreed to get involved in this project, in part, because he spends quite a bit of time in the area anyway. He sings and plays harmonica in the local group Northeast Timberland Band.
As with many construction projects, this one became more complicated than originally envisioned, Lang said. The plan had been to simply replace the cedar shakes. But it was discovered that the fascia was in poor condition, and it made sense to replace that, too. Then another layer of fiberboard was discovered on the original roof boards.
"At that point we decided to tear the whole roof up and redeck it and give us some ventilation underneath," Lang said.
Although he is an experienced carpentry teacher in a technical school, the Northern Bedrock workforce is different, Lang said, with crew members not necessarily aiming for careers in the trades. Instead, many are seeking to enhance book learning with practical experience.
That's true of Cal Umlauf, a native of Merrill, Wisconsin. Umlauf, the crew leader, studied history and the humanities as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University and as a graduate student at St. Andrews in Scotland.
Looking for something "a little bit more hands on," the lanky 25-year-old discovered Northern Bedrock on a website dedicated to preservation and restoration, and thought it would be a good fit.
He has appreciated the variety of worksites this summer, Umlauf said, and the excitement shown by parishioners about the work at the Old Log Church.
"It's really nice to do work on a project where the community is so involved, because you really feel like they really want it done," he said.
Marissa Jay, 19, of Hartford, Connecticut, took an option to join the crew for the second half of the season. She's taking a semester off from the University of Hartford to make that happen.
A junior majoring in history, Jay saw joining the work crew as an opportunity to learn more about the skills that would be required for a career involving historical preservation, she said.
She has been getting that real-world application, Jay said.
"On this church, we'll see how it was built in the late 1800s so you'll see the kind of techniques they would have used and you can see the wood, the kind of joints that they have here that's specific to that time," she said.
"All of these little things that I could have read about in any book, now I can see and learn how they did that."
Church members hope to complete the exterior work and get the floor done before winter, said Don Berthiaume, a parishioner who has been active in the project. That will include rebuilding a bell tower at the building's entrance. Other church members are restoring the original bell, which was cast in 1886.
The hope is to use the church, when requested, for weddings, baptisms and at least one Mass a year, Berthiaume and Omar said.
"We've got somebody signed up for a funeral whenever that happens," Omar added.
From the young adults pounding shingles into the roof to church members preparing their lunch, all involved seemed to be in high spirits on Thursday.
Standing at the doorway of the old church, Bassa was all smiles.
"It makes me really, really happy to see something preserved instead of torn down," he said. "I love old things."