Carolyn Lange, West Central Tribune, Published April 29 2012
For sale, $1: Frank Lake Covenant ChurchMURDOCK, Minn. – Sitting at the antique kitchen table in her equally old rural Murdock farmhouse, Marie Johnson listens intently to the Swedish church hymns coming from an under-the-kitchen-cabinet CD player.
“You’re crying, Hon,” said her husband, Dennis Johnson.
Quietly acknowledging her tears, she said it’s “so good to hear your father’s voice again.”
The music is from a “Midsommar Fest” album recorded in 1965 in the Frank Lake Covenant Church, a tiny wooden building that sits on the edge of a gravel road in Swift County, about equal distance from Murdock, Sunburg and Benson.
Sung entirely in Swedish by 22 church members at the time, the album was a tribute to the community’s Swedish heritage and Covenant faith that was steeped in traditional music and that helped the new immigrants form the Frank Lake Church back in 1877.
Aside from the well-kept cemetery in the back that’s squared-up with tall pine trees, the white 42-foot by 36-foot church is surrounded by farm fields.
Years ago many of the people who originally farmed the land attended the Frank Lake Covenant Church.
But a dwindling rural population, as well as the attraction to larger churches in nearby towns, resulted in the closure of Frank Lake in the mid-1980s.
But Dennis Johnson, along with the other four members of the Hillcrest Cemeteries Association that more or less inherited the church, are trying to figure out what to do with the building that had once been the centerpiece of faith and music for the community.
Their best hope is to find a buyer. That’s why Eric Turnquist, another member of the association, listed the church on Craigslist last month.
The asking price is $1.
So far Turnquist said he’s had about a half-dozen calls.
At least one person, who called from northern Minnesota, was very interested until they talked to a mover and found out how much it would cost to move the structure more than a few miles.
Although one area of the roof and ceiling is showing signs of decay, the building is structurally sound, said Turnquist. It was painted about five years ago.
Because the association has the perpetual duty of caring for the graveyard, there is no money to keep maintaining the church as well, said Johnson, who’s hoping that the listing on Craigslist will get the community talking about the church and looking for options.
There’s interest in preserving the church for its historical importance, but there’s no money for that either, said Johnson, although there have been inquiries about whether the structure could qualify for any of the state funding generated by the Legacy Amendment.
Without a buyer, a new home or money to maintain it, the church may eventually have to be torn down so that the lumber could be re-used, or simply demolished, he said.
Given the history of the church, and the importance of the music that was made there, that would be a difficult decision to make.
“There aren’t a lot of options when a building gets that old,” said Johnson.
Originating in 1877 with home church meetings and a circuit riding pastor, the congregation built its first church in 1887.
A lighting strike in 1900 destroyed the church, except for the organ that was dramatically dragged out through a window “amidst flames,” according to a brief written history of the church.
Just a few months later, the church was rebuilt, with the organ at the front of the church, where annual midsummer music festivals were held that featured the traditional Swedish Covenant hymns.
The 1965 “Midsommar Fest” was recorded during a live performance in the tiny Frank Lake Covenant Church and became a popular piece played on WCCO’s morning farm show, said Johnson.
The album featured many of the Johnson voices, including Marie and Dennis, his sister Kathy and the haunting duet by his late father, Ervin, and brother, Ron.
It’s the song that made Marie cry.