Tradition is alive in Sims

Bismarck Tribune

SIMS - The Gray Lady lay.

She lay waiting for the first car to roll over the hill and descend into the valley, through the slanted umber light of evening.

She lay in the cold abandoned parsonage and looked out her frosted upstairs window, watching for headlights and listening for that crunch of gravel, her spectral wanderings finally as still as the frozen Sims Creek.

The Gray Lady is always breathless, but never more so than on the one day each year that she almost comes back to life.

The friendly ghost who haunts the parsonage next to Sims Scandinavian Lutheran Church is only truly happy every year when she hears children singing Christmas carols.

At Sims, where there is nothing else, there is that.

Once a year since 1884, when the enclave of Petersons and Olsons and Johnsons built the small church, Sims parishioners have gathered for their Christmas program. Briefly a boom town pushing four digits in population, Sims has long been a ghost town. And its most famous ghost, a pastor's wife who died in the early 1900s, loves the yearly pageantry.

"The Gray Lady is a friendly ghost, yes," said Sims church member Joel Johnson, who has sworn to hearing mysterious footsteps and various clunks and clangs from the old house. "Especially this time of year."

The small country church - which inspired Gary Miller's "Spring Glory" painting - should itself be a ghost. No one has lived in Sims for decades, and its favorite son died this summer. Many of the church's 50 members thought the Christmas program was laid to rest with Sig Peterson in June.

But Teri Nelson and Tracy Larson just couldn't come to terms with that. The two women have been the biggest force behind the program for the last 20 years.

"Sig was such a part of everything we did here," Nelson said Thursday night, prior to the big show. "Last year, at 96 years old, he was up in front in red long underwear, singing 'Walking in My Winter Underwear,' except with Sig it was 'Valking in my Vinter Undervear.'

"Without him, I didn't even want to do it this year," Nelson said. "I couldn't imagine doing it without him. But then I couldn't imagine not doing it. He would have wanted it to continue."

So Nelson and Larson got together and created an outline for the program, which this year had a theme of "Christmas at the Ranch." The women - who call themselves neighbors even though they live several miles apart - were putting on the finishing touches minutes before the 7 p.m. start.

The church has about 50 members, but nearly 120 people showed up for the Christmas program. One way or another, everyone had a role to play. Many of them, as per tradition, didn't have a clue what they'd be doing until they showed up. One man who did get a heads-up was Lyle Bakke, a cousin of Peterson's who drove 300 miles from Flom, Minn., to read the Lord's Prayer. In Norwegian.

"If you've never been to one of these old-fashioned (shows), you're missing out," Bakke said. "And once you come, you'll be back next year - and you'll have a part."

For one night, the small church was alive with music and laughter, and its lights shone bright on the valley floor. It smelled like coffee and women's perfume.

Marge Peterson, Sig's 92-year-old widow, said her husband would have been happy that people around Sims still come together at Christmas. He was a natural on the fiddle, often performing with friend and former Gov. Art Link. But it was at Sims, where he first performed 92 years ago, that Peterson liked playing best.

"He was a born performer," Marge Peterson said. "He absolutely loved this program. I'm so glad they've kept it going."

It wasn't exactly easy.

Nelson said the biggest handicap at the rural church is finding enough kids to participate. There are six children in the parish, but that counts high-schoolers. This year, they had 3-year-old Claire Johnson playing Jesus' mother. They called her Unpredictable Mary. She did, indeed, miss her cue. But so did many veteran performers. There were goofs and gaffes, some flubbing of lines and forgetting of others. One of the little shepherds - a "borrowed" Catholic from Almont - had fun throwing straw from the bales that were stacked up near the altar. The baby who played the star in the East - which was positioned on the north side of the church - drooled a little bit.

The program was perfect for its imperfections.

It will be next year, too. North Dakota's oldest Lutheran church west of the Missouri River is aching for youth. But as long as good-natured, good-hearted people are willing to show up, the show will go on.

And someone will be watching from the parsonage window.

But until next year, Gray Lady, lay.

(Reach reporter Tony Spilde at 250-8260 or


Click here to view a video of   the Christmas Program.