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Published July 06 2010

Tiny Minnesota church big on meaning

Nielsville, Minn. - A preacher and two congregants would be a full house in the church near here built by retired construction worker Bruce Larson.

The 6-foot-square exterior of the little white chapel translates into 4,032.25 square inches of interior floor space. That’s 767.75 square inches less than a queen-size bed, 1,272.13 less than the bed of a 2010 Chevy Silverado 1500 pickup, and almost 350 square inches bigger than a Twister game mat.

To Larson’s knowledge, the structure, which is in Sundet Cemetery, about four miles northwest of Nielsville, is the smallest functional church in the world. He said the Guinness Book of World Records no longer tracks the title for smallest church.

“Oh, it’s great,” said Larson’s mother-in-law, Adeline Gudvangen. “It’s precious.”

“Precious” is a good word for the cute chapel and its serene locale. The quiet cemetery is surrounded by peaceful, green farmland. Wood shingles cover a steeple that rises to a height of about 19 feet and lifts a cross into the air above the tidy little piece of craftsmanship. Small gothic-style windows grace both sides of the church.

“I always wanted something out here,” said the 67-year-old Larson as he stood in Sundet Cemetery.

With four generations of his family buried there, including his father and twin brother, it’s a place close to his heart. Larson sees the chapel as a “memorial for the homesteaders who settled this area.”

So it’s fitting that the two one-person pews inside the church have a link to days gone by. They’re made from a single church pew that dates from 1892. And there’s just enough room for a pastor to stand in front of those two pews.

The limited (but just enough) space may come in handy. Larson said he’s already had people talk to him about getting married in what has been dubbed the “Little Chapel on the Prairie.”

Dedication

Larson is Scandinavian with a “little Irish” on his mother’s side, which is where his “temper flares up every now and then.”

Maybe it’s that combination of old-world stick-to-itiveness and just a little fire that got the job done over the months he worked on it. Larson began the project in fall 2009, and the chapel was dedicated last month.

Tiffany Larson said her father worked on the chapel “almost every day.” She described him as “just, like, an artistic guy.”

“It was like his home away from home,” said the 16-year-old junior at Norman County West High School.

The Rev. Valerian Ahles, pastor of Peace Lutheran Parish in the Shelly area, officiated at a June 14 dedication service for the chapel. Ahles spoke to the dozens present at the service, calling the chapel a “labor of love and sweat.” And he prayed that the chapel would be a place of “peace, comfort, rest and prayer.”

Loren Wegge and his wife, Muriel, attended the chapel’s dedication.

“It means a lot to all of us,” said Loren Wegge, 73, in a thick Norwegian accent.

Wegge lives across the Red River from Nielsville near Buxton, N.D. He has family buried in the Sundet Cemetery, and he and his wife came back after a wedding in Wisconsin that weekend so they could make the dedication service.

“I didn’t want to miss it,” Loren Wegge said.

“We’re a close-knit community, both sides (of the river),” Muriel Wegge said.

Humble beginnings

The church started at the Goodwill store with a piece of fancy woodwork.

“I had picked up some fancy filigree … made out of redwood,” Larson said.

But the piece, which was designed to decorate the peak of a roof overhang, didn’t fit any of his buildings.

He did, however, think it would look great on a church, and he started doing some drawing.

It’s a pattern Larson’s wife, Kim, has seen more than once. She said her husband has a habit of getting into projects, and they start with sketches in a “little” notebook. She remembers a pole barn he built that included a bathroom and kitchen.

As for his latest effort, she calls it “amazing. Gives me goose bumps.”

Standing in the cemetery, Francis Spokely of East Grand Forks, Minn., said most of his relatives are buried there, dating back to 1871.

That’s what brought him to the dedication service.

And, as the 64-year-old Spokely sees it, Larson’s church in the cemetery honors the memory of his relatives and others who are laid to rest there.

“If you see it, you’ve got to appreciate it,” Spokely said.


If you go

Bruce Larson’s “Little Chapel on the Prairie” is in Sundet Cemetery, about four miles northwest of Nielsville, Minn., and about four miles southwest of Climax, Minn.

From U.S. Highway 75, turn west onto County Highway 51 and then turn left into Sundet Cemetery.

The chapel is open to the public during Memorial Day weekends and special occasions. Private viewings may be arranged by calling (218) 946-3605.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734