Leer church officially receives historic designation

LEER – A Lutheran church that has stood at the center of a Long Rapids Township community for more than 110 years has made the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Park Service has recognized Leer Lutheran Church for its role in Michigan’s immigration history, as well as the building’s age and well-preserved original structure, Michigan State Historic Preservation Office analyst Todd Walsh said. Dating from the dawn of the 19th century, the Norwegian Lutheran Church, as it originally was called, served as the hub of a community named after Lier, Norway, where many of its settlers hailed from.

Like many European settlers who came to Michigan in the late 1800s, the Norwegians who settled Leer were drawn to America by the promise of work, Walsh said. Their countrymen who came before them would write home about the opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“A large number of immigrants would come from Norway to New York, then to Buffalo, and then make their way to Alpena,” he said.

Some of these immigrants were pious people, and were disgusted by the lawlessness and drunkenness they found in Alpena, Walsh said. After a devastating fire swept through town in 1872, a few men ventured out 25 miles northwest of town and started to settle Leer. As the village grew, they needed a church and hired a builder who had constructed another church in Presque Isle County’s Krakow Township.

The result, completed in 1900, is a Gothic Revival-styled church typical of many others found in rural communities, Walsh said. Its scaled-down simplicity reflected not only the Norwegians’ faith, but their means as well. Other than a few minor additions and renovations, the building stands today much as it did 113 years ago.

“There’s siding on it now, but that’s relatively unimportant,” he said. “In a lot of ways, the original design of the church is largely intact, which is another reason for its significance.”

Being nationally recognized is the realization of some years of work by congregation Treasurer Linda Pletcher and former area resident Leta O’Connor. Both have done research on the church, and both have family ties to Leer’s founders. They met at a celebration of the congregation’s 125th anniversary. The congregation started meeting in 1882 inside of Andreas Kristoferson’s home.

The two got to talking about getting the church put on the national register, O’Connor said. Pletcher told her the work had already begun, but had been shelved due to lack of funding.

“The people themselves had to take over the projects, we had to take over from the state and do all the legwork,” she said, adding the two started working with Walsh to restart the process.

With much help from Pletcher and O’Connor, Walsh wrote a 33-page application, detailing the building’s historical significance. Included is an altar painting by Sarah Kirkeberg Raugland, a Norwegian-American artist who made paintings for many Norwegian Lutheran churches. On Aug. 10, Raugland’s great-great-granddaughter visited Leer as part of a community celebration.

The entry also includes the church grounds, its parish house and its cemetery.

“My reaction, obviously, is that we’re very excited about it,” she said. “To have such a small community church to be recognized nationally is pretty big.”

The next step: getting a Michigan Historic Place marker, O’Connor said. These bronze markers can be seen across the state in front of buildings the Michigan Historical Commission deems significant.

For Pletcher, national recognition is part of a larger goal she and other members of the small congregation put forth. With 35 members and an aging population, they wanted to ensure the church’s future. Along with applying for the national register, Pletcher and other congregation leaders started a foundation to keep the property and put together a museum. Filled with memorabilia from Leer’s past, including information about its Guernsey dairy cattle association, the museum is in the parish house’s second floor.

The museum is open on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, and by appointment, Pletcher said. For details, she can be reached at 379-2920.

And for much, much more information about the Norwegian Lutheran Church Complex and the people who built it, check out the application at http://ow.ly/o4vHd

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.