Special to the Bismarck Tribune

By MIKE DORSHER

GARDENA The Rev. Joel Brandvold presided over plenty of birthday celebrations and funeral services during his 12 years as pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, but Sunday's 100th anniversary of the congregation was the most momentous and, in some ways, the saddest.

That's because the milestone also marked the beginning of the end for Zion Lutheran, the Missouri Synod church that Brandvold served from fall 1993 until the beginning of this year. At the end of this month, Gardena's last church its last nonresidential building of any kind will close down, and all of the nearly 300 people there on Sunday knew it.

"It's kind of a bittersweet thing," Brandvold said after officiating at the morning service. "Doing an anniversary and a closing " it's a little different.

"It's interesting that the church outlasted the bar," he added. "That's unusual in North Dakota."

Zion Lutheran had more than 300 members at its peak in the 1930s, but now it has just 76, and on most Sundays, fewer than 25 people are in the pews. Many of those have driven the 10 miles south from their homes in Bottineau just to keep the church alive.

Attendance has dipped further since Brandvold left to join the staff at Shepherd's Hill Retreat Center near Lake Metigoshe, because Gardena's services have had to start at 8 a.m. so that the "vacancy pastor," the Rev. James Judson, can start services in Willow City at 9:15 a.m. and Bottineau at 11 a.m.

Last November, Zion's remaining members debated over two Sundays on whether to close the church and devote their energies and offerings to Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Bottineau. Only two members voted against the proposal.

"It's sad to see the doors close, but they're also very concerned about using their resources wisely," Brandvold said. "They said, 'Why should we hog a pastor when we drive right past one to get here?'"

They hope to sell the church and the parish hall, which was added during an extensive remodeling in 1956, to a congregation that will move it, Brandvold said. "But if it doesn't get used for something soon, it will be razed. They won't let it deteriorate. They're not that kind of people. They know they've had a hundred years of good service in this place."

Zion has hosted 145 weddings, 510 confirmations and 642 baptisms, according to the official history handed out at Sunday's birthday/wake. Among the many there who experienced all three at Zion was Lester Zorn, of Bottineau.

Zorn, 78, recalled going to church in a horse-drawn sleigh as a boy and facing his confirmation questioning minutes after hearing that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Until World War II, Zion still held some of its services in German the language of all its services from 1906 through 1922.

"When we first went to church here, we had a coal stove in the center aisle, and all the men sat on the west side of the church while the women sat on the east," Zorn said. "Who knows why?"

He managed to bridge the divide by Oct. 20, 1948, when he and his wife, Maxine, were married there, and three of their six children were baptized there. His favorite memory at Zion? "I guess I'd better say my wedding," he agreed, looking over his shoulder for Maxine.

Glen Milbrath, a longtime Zion elder, also remembers getting married in the church, on June 20, 1957, because a tornado hit Fargo that day. "We could see that dark cloud in the east that evening," he said. "It was huge."

Milbrath, 76, has lived in Gardena all his life, a stone's throw from the church, and he has been city auditor since 1964. His mother, Lydia Milbrath, is the congregation's oldest member. Born nine days after the laying of Zion's cornerstone, she'll celebrate her 100th birthday on July 24 at the Good Samaritan Home in Bottineau.

A couple of 95-year-old Zion members, Carl Kroeplin and Walter Richwalski, did attend Sunday's centennial. They stood ramrod straight for pictures outside in the bright sun, then sought refuge under the giant tent set up in the church yard to host the free church dinner to end all church dinners at least at Zion a catered cornucopia of fresh turkey, pork roast, green beans, rolls and every church-lady dessert imaginable.

Unwilling to go quietly, the congregation held a "special music program" and another worship service in the afternoon, after which everyone repaired to the tent again for cake and coffee.

Between bites of cake, Zion elder Mike Forsberg pointed down a dusty road to spots that once hosted a cafe, a grocery store, a bar, a grain elevator and a combination hardware store/post office/ice cream parlor.

"There is nothing left," said Forsberg, the Bottineau Elementary School principal who coached Bottineau's girls basketball team to the Class B state title this year. "There are no businesses left."

Fewer than 25 people now live in Gardena, which has no paved streets. The community center where Forsberg learned to play basketball still stands, but barely. An inch of dust covers the wood floor in the deserted gym. The U.S. flag, the green 4-H banner and the maroon stage curtains still hang there but so do signs warning, "Not Responsible for Accidents or Fires."

Zion Lutheran Church, by contrast, showed few signs of disrepair and overflowed with people Sunday, at least for one last time. All four alumni pastors who spoke at Sunday's services stressed that the church will live on in the hearts and memories of everyone who attended it through the years. But when the congregation sentimentally sang "Silent Night" in the heat of July, everyone realized that within a month, every night and every Sunday morning would be silent at Zion Lutheran.

"This has been a hard decision, because this is the only church we've been a part of," Forsberg said. "When you close a church down, you lose a part of yourself."