First lady to visit historic ND church today

Dale Bentley / Preservation North Dakota / Special to The Forum

This is Sims, N.D., where first lady Laura Bush is planning to visit today.

First lady to visit historic ND church today
By Janell Cole State Capitol Bureau
Opinion - 10/02/2008 BISMARCK –

Members of the Sims Scandinavian Lutheran Church will have their most famous visitor today, and that called for more than the routine church cleaning bee, says Donna Johnson of rural Almont. Beyond a good spit-and polish, members of the country church are touching up paint and “doing windows,” she said. “And washing curtains.” Johnson, her husband, Joel, and the others will host first lady Laura Bush today. Bush is visiting the Sims church in her role as honorary chairwoman of Save America’s Treasures, whose funds recently helped restore the congregation’s original 1884 building. The first lady also plans to visit Riverside Elementary School in Bismarck before leaving North Dakota. The Johnsons and others are thrilled about the visit. “It is unbelievable that the first lady would select this as one of her projects to visit on this trip,” Johnson said. Bush will tour the church and parsonage around noon, hear of its history and – of course – stay for an old-fashioned Lutheran potluck with the few dozen people who are being allowed in.

Sims is a country church about 45 miles west-southwest of Bismarck-Mandan, and a few miles north of Almont. The town of Sims was founded in 1883 when the Northern Pacific Railroad was built through the area and was briefly a boomtown. It reported more than 1,000 people in 1884, due to brick-making and coal-mining activity, according to Douglas A. Wick, author of “North Dakota Place Names.” The railroad moved its line north several miles in 1946 and “the town was doomed,” he wrote. Its post office closed in 1947.

The church and parsonage are the only buildings remaining on the townsite. But the church persevered and still thrives, Donna Johnson said. Part of a two-point parish, it shares a minister with Almont and each church operates independently. They alternate Sunday services. The original 1884 building served as a parsonage on the first floor and a church sanctuary upstairs. In 1898, the congregation built a new church, which is still used today, and converted the original parsonage/church to serve as parson age only. It was occupied until 1943. By 2004, the parsonage was in bad shape and the congregation decided it wanted to save it. But it had to act fast. “If we hadn’t done something (then), it would have been in no condition to restore,” Donna Johnson said. Through the Prairie Churches program of Preservation North Dakota, a private nonprofit organization, the parsonage received a $5,000 grant, becoming one of many church preservation projects around the state that PND sponsored using a $100,000 Save America’s Treasures grant. Sims also was named a PND demonstration project, which meant it received extra physical and technical assistance.

The Johnsons, other members and PND rounded up volunteer labor and local funds and gave the parsonage a complete interior and exterior restoration, finishing in 2006. It now serves as a museum. The 1898 church has been continuously maintained and was not part of the restoration. The first lady could not have picked a better prairie church to visit, said PND Executive Director Dale Bentley of Buffalo. He said the folks from Save America’s Treasures called him some months ago and said they wanted to arrange a visit to a prairie church by an unnamed dignitary. Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or