God in the fields: Roadside Mass prays for bountiful harvest
WARSAW, N.D. — As the soft light of evening mingled with the sweet smell of a late summer's field, voices raised in prayer and hymn as Father Brian Moen asked for God's blessings from a country church hardly bigger than its altar.
The Thursday night mass at rural St. Joseph's Chapel, a tiny steepled church set in the middle of the rich farmlands near Warsaw, N.D., was the first in seven years at what supporters claim is the smallest chapel in the country.
Historically, the outdoor Catholic Mass was celebrated in June, but Moen said this year's late-summer occasion was a "celebration of the harvest" in the northern fields. The timing was apt—as the congregants sought out God from the shoulder of a country road a literal stone's throw away from the sluggish Marais River in Walsh County.
Many commented that attendance was driven down by the number of those already pulling crops from the field.
Moen, who is the pastor of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Warsaw as well as Sacred Heart Catholic Church in neighboring Minto, N.D., grew up on a family farm in Park River, N.D., some 25 miles to the west of his parish today. Thus, he knew full well the trials and glories of the local farmer when he began the night's prayer.
"I think a farmer, in some way, has a greater closeness to God," Moen said. Despite the increasing ability of man to control the earth, he continued, farmers are unique in their reliance on God "because there's one thing they can't control—and that is the weather."
Last year, the farms around the chapel were hit repeatedly by summer storms that dropped about 50 inches of rain, drowning out much of the local crop.
This year, the area has been parched at times by drought conditions that have dried out the western side of the state.
Due to their lack of control over that most essential element, Moen said farmers share a unified purpose with their God that also speaks to those who never set foot in the field.
"They are cooperating with God in the continuation of the creation of life," he said.
If the sermon reflected the truths of the congregation that gathered to hear it, the chapel itself provided the ideal setting.
The roadside church was built in 1907 as an extension of the wayside shrine culture of eastern Europe, a style brought to the Red River Valley by Polish settlers in the 1800s. Today, St. Joseph's stands complete with a steeple, which is dwarfed by the trees that surround it.
Before Mass began, churchgoers raised dust as they trickled in, parking cars and pickups on the sides of gravel roads. Most carried folding camp chairs to sit on. Some stood on the road or in the grass.
John Bishop, a farmer who owns the land the chapel now stand on, was among those gathered before the chapel and has been the caretaker of the building since it was moved to his property in the 1960s. Decades before that, he attended his first Mass there as a child in the 1930s.
Bishop's daughter, Gloria Wippler, sat beside him on a folding camp chair. She had grown up with the roadside chapel in her yard and had spent youthful days cleaning the place with her mother. She said the annual Mass has long held a special meaning for the people of the local farming community.
"It's always been here," she said. "It's something everyone should experience."
When Moen opened prayer, he appealed to the power of God to influence humanity in and beyond the fields. He prayed for the safety of those laboring on the farms and—most of all—he prayed for a bountiful harvest.
When the Mass ended and the parishioners began to drift back to their vehicles to drive home, Gary Babinski was among those mingling on the short lawn between the chapel and the road.
Before he, too, left to return to his fields, he laughed with a friend after she commented on what she thought had been a sad look on his face during the Mass.
"I was just praying hard," he answered. "I've got a beautiful crop, and I want to get it in the bin."