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'Silent Night' descendant visits Austrian church

Erhardt "Butch" Dallmann learned he was going blind 27 years ago. The Moorhead resident was diagnosed in 1975 with retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable eye disease that would slowly take his vision. This October, with just 1 percent of his ...

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Erhardt "Butch" Dallmann learned he was going blind 27 years ago.

The Moorhead resident was diagnosed in 1975 with retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable eye disease that would slowly take his vision.

This October, with just 1 percent of his eyesight remaining, Dallmann, 59, and wife Nancy took time for one last vacation.

The couple visited the tiny town of Oberndorf, Austria, where 184 years ago, Butch's great-great-great-grandfather composed the music to the classic Christmas carol "Silent Night."

"We wanted to go before I couldn't see anymore," Butch said. "That was my desire."

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Joseph Mohr wrote the words to "Silent Night" in 1816. He went to Butch's great-great-great-grandfather, Franz Gruber, two years later and asked that he compose the music.

Gruber, who was the choirmaster and organist for St. Nikolaus Church in Oberndorf, wrote the music on guitar in about a day.

"Mice had eaten the bellows out of the organ," Butch said. "So he had to write it on guitar."

Mohr and Gruber first performed the song before a packed audience at the church on Christmas Eve 1818.

Butch learned about his famous relative from his dad's uncle. "He's the one that started compiling the family history," Butch said.

The responsibility of tracking the family history eventually fell to Butch.

The Dallmanns had always planned to visit Oberndorf, located 20 miles southeast of Salzburg, Austria, but the timing was never right.

"We should have done it years ago," Butch said.

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"But you know how it goes. We just put things off until it was almost too late."

Butch's vision started to deteriorate rapidly about five years ago.

First, he had trouble seeing at night.

Next, he was forced to give up reading and playing his trumpet.

Now, his eyesight is permanently blurred, and there are days he can't see at all.

He relies on memory and his wife to get around.

"She is wonderful," Butch said.

"She is a gift from God. She helps me a lot."

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The couple work so well together many don't even know of Butch's condition.

But the Dallmanns realized that if they didn't take the trip this year -- while Butch still had some vision -- there might not be another chance.

They started looking into tours and finally found one out of the German hotbed of New Ulm, Minn., that included Oberndorf in its tour of Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

"He has his good days and bad days," Nancy said.

"On his bad days, he can't see at all. On his good days, he can see a little bit."

The afternoon they visited Oberndorf was a good day.

St. Nikolaus Church was destroyed in a flood years ago, but Butch was able to see some of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, which is dedicated to Mohr and Gruber.

The couple was greeted by a member of the Silent Night Society who told them the town history.

Then they joined the tour group in singing Silent Night in German and then in English.

"It was a good day," Butch said.

"I thank God for that. It really meant a lot to me."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Baird at (701) 241-5535

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