April 05, 2008
Old Stone Church
Old Stone Church at Firesteel
The impermanence of most old buildings on the prairie is palpable. As you drive across prairie landscapes, it’s not unusual to happen occasionally on the ruins of buildings from yesteryear. Usually what remains is merely a tilting, rotting shell, as it prepares itself for eventual internment in the soil. Often, what scraps remain have been carried off for use elsewhere. It is as if the prairie gradually swallows up anything not lived in, used, or maintained. Still, when my sister and I went looking for the old catholic church my Dad and his parents and siblings had attended at Glad Valley when we visited last March, we expected something to have remained. There was nothing.
We know that the church was still standing in the mid-1950’s. Rex Witte, one of the few inhabitants of Glad Valley remaining today, told us that the old church had been sold and hauled off years ago for some other use, and that the graves were moved to Isabel. That seemed sad. As the population thins out across the Dakotas, and more people move off the land, one of the last tangible reminders that there were once people here often is the churches. People will struggle to maintain them and keep them up, even after the congregants have all moved away, because they often are a last tangible link to the families and communities that preceded us, as well as the faith that kept them here.
Still, when folks we met in Eagle Butte mentioned the Old Stone Church outside of Timber Lake, and offered to take us there, it was an opportunity that we did not pass up. A small Episcopal chapel built of stone in 1923, the Old Stone Church – actually the Holy Spirit Chapel of the Standing Rock Mission – continues in use today by a handful of families. Built with great attention to detail of local sandstone, the church is a beautiful little building, and one that would be difficult to imagine ever being swallowed up by the prairie.
According to the Timberlake Historical Society, which maintains an information page about the chapel here, the Old Stone Church is located not far from Timber Lake "on the Buck & Lory Ward Ranch, which is north of the new BIA road linking Highways 63 and 65. The best way to reach the church is to turn north off the BIA road one mile west of the Broken Heart Ranch corner. There is a small sign. You then follow the trail as it proceeds north, then west and then north. Eventually you will find yourself overlooking Firesteel Creek, the valley and the church.” We took this route without a guide, got lost, and did a considerable amount of backtracking before we came on the scenic little valley the church is located in. It is a thing to behold.
It was difficult not to be inspired by the beauty of this little chapel—for example, the loving attention to detail in the stonework such as the cross carved out of the face of the sandstone above the entryway and the floor-to-ceiling archway that frames the sanctuary of the altar.
Old Stone Church Nestled in a Prairie Valley
Unique Architecture Reminiscent of a Medieval European Chapel
Note the Carved Stone Cross Above the Entry Way
A Bluff Rises to the North and Rear of the Chapel
Interior of the Chapel (Note the Stone Arch)
View Upward of the Stone Arch Providing Roof Support
Stone Altar Nestled in the Sanctuary
Potbelly Stove--Probably the Original 1923 Heating System