Fargo Churches: Then and Now

This slideshow features historic photographs of several of the churches of Fargo, accompanied by recent photographs, which allow for side-by-side comparison. The recent photographs were taken by Scott Becklund in 2012. Mr. Becklund attempted to recreate the original location and angle of the archival photographs. Most of the churches retain some of their original character, while some have been demolished.[divider scroll]

1. Elim Lutheran Church- 321 9th Street North. (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Elim Lutheran Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

2. First Congregational Church- 224 8th Street South.  (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Site of former First Congregational Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund. None of the original structure remains. It was demolished in 1979.

3. First Presbyterian Church-  650 2nd Avenue North.  (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) First Presbyterian Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

4. Gethsemane Episcopal Church-  204 9th Street South.  (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Site of former Gethsemane Episcopal Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund. The cathedral burned beyond repair in 1989.

5. Grace Lutheran Church- 821 5th Avenue South. (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Grace Lutheran Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

6. Methodist Episcopal Church- 906 1st Avenue South. (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) First United Methodist Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

7. Plymouth Congregational Church- 901 Broadway North.  (Left) Photo Mss 48.1.25, courtesy of NDSU Archives. Taken c. 1920. (Right) Plymouth Congregational Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

8. Pontoppidan Lutheran Church- 309 4th Street North. (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Pontoppidan Luthean Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

9. St. Mark’s English Lutheran Church- 400 Roberts Street. (Left) Photo taken from NDSU Libraries (http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/churches/st-marks-eng-luth.htm). (Right) Site of former St. Mark’s Church. Building was demolished, c. 2000. Photograph by Scott Becklund, 2012.

10. St. Mary’s Catholic Church-  619 7th Street North. (Left) Photo 2023.M-4, courtesy of NDSU Archives. Taken c. 1935. (Right) St. Mary’s Cathedral, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

11. Swedish Baptist Church- 300 4th Street North. (Left) Photo taken from NDSU Libraries (http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/churches/swede-bap.htm). (Right) Site of former Swedish Baptist Church. Photograph by Scott Becklund, 2012.

12. Unitarian Universalist Church- 121 9th Street South.  (Left) Photo 2003.2.3, courtesy of NDSU Archives. Taken c. 1935. (Right) Unitarian Universalist Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

-Zach Jendro, Digital History 2012


Ladies Aid Societies

In every church history, one theme consistently appears.  Whether it be the Scandinavian Lutherans or the English speaking Presbyterians, each church had the women of the church to thank for being the driving force behind sustaining the church.  For example, in fall of 1873,  women in both Fargo and Moorhead churches organized events to benefit the church in Fargo.  The proceeds of the first oyster supper and art showing totaled $143.21.[1]  At the Presbyterian church, whenever a contribution was needed, whether that be service or money, the “ladies aid” was  there to lend a helping hand.[2]  These are just a few of the many examples that highlight the importance of the ladies aid societies in Fargo that would expand beyond church matters and into the enforcement of good moral order in Fargo.

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[1] Byers, Clara. 1937. Historical sketch of Gethsemene Epicopal Church

[2] Lane, W. J., and D. T. Robertson. 1927. The past made present. S.l: s. n]. 69.

The Making of Bishop Shanley

Portrait of Bishop Shanley in his official vestments. [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: sh00113155]

Father Shanley was ordained on May 30, 1874, at the age of only 23. Following his  ordination, Shanley arrived in St. Paul in July 1874 where he began as an assistant to Father Augustine Ravieux, Bishop Grace, and Father Ireland. In the well developed city of St. Paul, a large Catholic congregation offered Shanley many opportunities to grow in his ministerial skills.  Ireland took Shanley under his wing and gave him many responsibilities in the church.  Almost two years after he had come to St. Paul,  Shanley was appointed as pastor of the cathedral parish. During Shanley’s time in St. Paul he made it a priority to serve minorities and the destitute.[1] During the time when racial equality was decades in the future, Shanley conducted services for African-American Catholics in the basement of the cathedral and moved to have regular services held for these parishioners.

When Shanley first came to North Dakota in the late 1880s the compassion he developed for the less fortunate was exhibited by his treatment of the Native Americans.  Following the battle at Wounded Knee, relations between the Indians and settlers were quite tense. Shanley took up defense for the Indians and in 1891 sent a letter to the Fargo Argus defending those on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. In his letter, he denounced the actions taken by local agents and highlight the positive aspects of Indian culture and conduct.


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[1] Weber, Gerald Michael. 1951. John Shanley: first bishop of Fargo. St. Paul, MN: St. Paul Seminary. 17.

New Jersey Man Ensures a Quick Divorce at the Last Possible Moment

The following story from “Fargo: From Frontier Village to All America City, 1875-2000,”  demonstrates the end of an era of lenient divorce laws for Fargo. Many fought to see an end to Fargo’s notoriety as the “divorce capital of the Midwest,” but there was a negative side, too. Fargo lost the revenues from a large number of people who established a three-month temporary residence in Fargo to fulfill the legal requirement prior to being granted a divorce. 

A New Jersey man was among the last to establish residence tor divorce in North Dakota under the 90-day statute.  There were over 40 saloons in Moorhead in which he may have boomed on the night of March 31,1899. Midnight was the deadline, the new law of the one year residence was effective April 1.

He had not entered Fargo as yet and consequently had not taken the first steps to establish residence or a divorce action. If he had gone to a Fargo hotel and registered his “legal residence” would have been accumulation around his name of the hotel register.

But the man from New Jersey slid off the train at Moorhead with only a few hours to “get in” under the new North Dakota law. Moorhead saloons were bright; the liquor was raw and the clock ticked on.

The town clock began to toll the passing of midnight and the last of the old North Dakota divorce regime.

Now, the man from New Jersey might have stretched his conscience to the matter of a few minutes, but to a mind affected by 40 saloons it seemed a matter of life or death to get into North Dakota before the clock finished striking.

He grabbed his suitcase in one hand and his hat in the other as he began a hot-foot dash across the bridge. Drivers of the “jag wagons” and some of the “sports” whom he had been treating followed in his wake to referee the New Jersey man’s spurt against time. Saloon keepers were craning their necks from doorways when they heard a whoop on the Fargo side of the Red River. The man from New Jersey had made it – and in the nick of time. His divorce now was only a question of three months and a day.[1]

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[1] Kolness, John W. 2001. Fargo: From Frontier Village to All America City, 1875-2000. [Hendrum, Minn.]: Heritage Publications.

Introduction to the Churches of Fargo

If you were to ask several Fargoans to describe what role religion has in the city today, it is safe to say that you would get a variety of answers.  When Fargo was established in 1872, the railroad began to connect the Wild West with the social and economic systems that were prevalent in the East.  To determine the religious feelings at the time and the role they played in Fargo, it is important to address several individuals and organizations that shaped the city from its very beginnings to the end of our period of study. During these 28 years, Fargo’s religious life grows significantly even from the first church service that was held down in “the timbers” and offered free whiskey to those who attended.  In 1900 we leave off with the completion of St. Mary’s Cathedral, an edifice that even non-Catholic Fargoans take pride in.  In all of this growth, Carrol Engelhardt’s argument for middle-class moral dominance is evidenced in Fargo’s religious development. Traces of this influence can be seen in nearly every social and religious organization.[1]  All in all, the clashes between different cultures and classes created a diverse religious profile that would be the foundation of future religious and social development.Brief History_01

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[1] Engelhardt, Carroll L, Gateway to the Northern Plains Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 157.

Thomas Canfield

The story of Fargo’s religious development begins not in Fargo itself, but in the neighboring town of Moorhead, Minnesota. Thomas Hawley Canfield was an ambitious young entrepreneur who initially became involved in railroad development in New England.  Although Canfield’s primary motivations were not religious, his Episcopalian beliefs shaped how he dealt with his promoting efforts for the railroad.[1]  He was a supporter of many of the developing religious and moral issues that came to prominence in both Fargo and Moorhead. Canfield’s moral convictions give him impetus to advise the directors of the NPRC (Northern Pacific Railway Company) to support the development of “churches, schools, and benevolent instructions” by providing land at little or no charge.[2]  In addition to these land grants, Canfield recruited pastors and catered to several different denominations.  In all these activities, the end goal was to promote the development of a thriving moral society in Moorhead, and not the town across the river. Despite Canfield’s efforts to discourage Fargo’s development, churches began to form and the moral framework for the fledgling city began to grow.

[1] Engelhardt, Carroll L, Gateway to the Northern Plains Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 17.

[2] Ibid., 17.

The First Lutheran Church

The First Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church

The building was first built as the First Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, cornerstone being having been built in May 26, 1895. It was designed by the Hancock brothers, George nd Walter, and served as a church until about 1919, when it was removed and replaced by a funeral home [Courtesy of the North Dakota State University Archives].

Like other religious groups, Lutherans populated the landscape in large numbers, which brought about the need for a communal place of worship.  Members established a church in which they aptly named First Lutheran Church, located in the area of 400 Roberts Street.  The church was built with an open porch and there were several wooden homes built next to this church.

As with most of the other early religious structures, the main and most noticeable consistency was the very large and high steeple; it is as if the churches were made to be seen stretching into the heavens.

This church is different from others in that that it was built with an outer decor consisting of wood frame.  This picture also shows that the surrounding residences were made of both wood and brick, thereby indicating that the skills and trades of many populations were getting supplies from both river and rail.

Most likely, the wood came from mills in Minnesota.  Judging by the original land plot and other historical records,  R.L. Frazee in Frazee, Minnesota, was dedicated to producing lumber and turned out building supplies  that was eventually loaded to rail for the west.  Some of the wood later would be committed to the United States Government to build the First Pony Express as the rails pushed West.

In summary, the first people to form the new community of Fargo were rich in both tradition and a history that they brought from many points of origin all over the world.  With immigration to Fargo also came the traditional beliefs that resonate within each culture and also made a permanent mark on the surrounding community.  Rich with tradition and deep in history, the community of Fargo grew into a stable and robust community greatly influenced by the cultural diversity of immigration and migration.

With diversity came the freedom of religion. The early settlers held the ideals of western movement and ultimately established a similar base of faith and beliefs that  grew quickly and expanded the country from coast to coast; faith and religion were very important in each and every landscape that marked progression from the Fargo area to the Puget Sound.

As testaments to the faiths that motivated early settlers, their beliefs never faltered and many of the early churches still carry on the traditions of their interpretation of religious and today’s skyline still holds their steeples in our prayers and in the community’s sites.

Rusty Ouart, Digital History 2012

The First Methodist Church, 1874

The First Methodist Church, 1909

The First Methodist Church, pictured here in 1909, was preceded by the congregation’s original building constructed in 1874 [Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota]

First, this picture of the First Methodist Church indicates that it was built in a dense growth of older trees.  This would indicate that it was taken close to water and not deep into the prairie.  Therefore, there was no retreat for the early settlers of Fargo if faced with outside threats.

Next, the windows are exposed and remarkably made of stained glass.  Not only were the new settlers resilient, but they showed that they had less common resources like stained glass.

This picture also indicates that many church builders chose structures with wood frames and concrete footings and were not primitive; they even used mortar and expensive brick. For example, the First Methodist Church (pictured above) located on Broadway represents a religious building with a steeple and the entrance is on the right front side of the exterior.

Also, the attention to detail at this time in history shows how fast the growth escalated and progressed.  According to the photograph, communication lines are running, thereby demonstrating a significant measure of growth within a relatively short period of time.

Knowing that from 1871 to the date of this 1909 picture, the  38 years from rail and working treaties, it is obvious that the progress of making the small prairie tent city to one that now holds such infrastructure such as concrete and brick facades and a diversity of churches is quite a remarkable feat.  The city of Fargo by 1909 was full of bustling populations and advanced architecture of brick churches highlighted congregations’ dedication to their individual heritage and the diverse backgrounds in the growing city.First United Methodist scott_01

Rusty Ouart, Digital History 2012

Introduction to Religion and Architecture in the Community, 1880-1910

The Red River Valley boom began in the 1880s. Heavy immigration, mostly of Scandinavians, Poles, Bohemians, and German-Russians, helped first populate the area. The migration demographics of the West were shaped by the Red River tributary that ran through the Minnesota and North Dakota valley and railroad lines to the newly formed area that we know as Fargo. With the migration of people came the expansion of religion and customs; many practices and backgrounds came to the communities that were taking permanent form.

Quickly, the railroad crossed into the Fargo area and two small communities surfaced on the landscape west of the river. Each community soon acquired the local names of “Fargo in the Timber,” located on the banks of the river, and “Fargo on the Prairie,” which was nothing more then a tent city built upon the present-day Main Avenue locale. Ironically, it was the tent city where United States Army officers accompanied railroad surveyors and their families. Many historic calculations estimated that this tent city consisted of about 100 people who lived in approximately 50 tents total.

Fargo’s early ethnic migration helped establish “Old World” or traditional religion. Those different practices and places of worship help with the understanding of how each brought together individual religious enclaves into a larger community of devoted settlers.

As one might expect, the area was home to many Native Americans before the arrival of European immigrants and Euro-American migrants.  The early exploration of the Red River Valley also brought in migration from Norway, Sweden, and France. Therefore, a great deal of heritage was concentrated within the confines of Fargo and many religions naturally began as migration of the ethnic groups continued to  grow.

Additionally, the new settlements also included many other sectors of ethnic diversity that many might not expect on the prairie, among them Russian Ukrainians, Asians, African Americans and Arabs. The working railroad greatly facilitated the new and diverse people who came through Fargo.

The significance of so many immigrants brought diversity, but by the year 1885, many of the immigrants were Russian-German. Still, the census and other records of population growth proved that by 1915 over 79 percent of North Dakota’s overall population consisted of immigrants and their offspring.

This composite of the churches that arose in the period of 1890 – 1900 helps to  better understand how the different ethnicity brought a different flavor to the landscape of Fargo.

Churches of Fargo North Dakota and the Diversity of Religion, 1890-1910

Churches of Fargo North Dakota and the Diversity of Religion [Courtesy off the North Dakota State University Archives]

This picture was taken of the churches in the time around 1890-1910. It indicates that during this time, the facades showed there were skilled craftsman in Fargo’s early settlement period. Each of the churches found seems to have a brick facade. The churches appearing in on this photograph are Gethsemane Episcopal Church,   First Congregational Church, First Norwegian Baptist Church, Robert Street German Evangelical Church, and the Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church, all of which represent the religious diversity in the new settlement called Fargo.

The photographs of the churches also bring out many details that often not noticed when first viewing a vintage photograph, but after a little bit of time spent reading and fact finding, it is the unseen that speaks the loudest when you examine a picture and consider its historical context.

Please click here to be linked to a slideshow featuring Fargo’s churches.

Rusty Ouart, Digital History 2012

First United Methodist

members of Methodist Church photo

This is a photo of some charter members of the First United Methodist Church.


In 1871, Father James Gurley held the first formal Methodist service in Fargo in Pinkham Hall at the corner of Main Avenue and 5th Street.  However, it was the Rev. John Webb who organized the first Methodist Sunday school and helped to build the first Methodist Episcopal Church.  The land for the church was donated by the Northern Pacific Railway and was 30′ x 50′.  It was completed on July 1, 1874, at a cost of $1,200 and was chartered 19 days later.[1]First United Methodist scott_01

First Methodist church exterior photo

The exterior of First Methodist Church.

First Methodist Church interior church

The interior of First Methodist Church.

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] First United Methodist Church. “Our History”. web. Oct. 30, 2012.

Gethsemane Cathedral

Gethsemane Cathedral photo

When Episcopal Bishop William D. Walker was appointed, he chose Fargo as his See City and Gethsemane Church became Gethsemane Cathedral.  In 1893, the church was located on the southeastern corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street South and had 175 members. The Rev. F.B. Nash Jr. was the rector.  The building was the only wooden Episcopal cathedral in the United States.[1]Gethsemane

 Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] Caron, John. “Fargo, N.D., History Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU.” Fargo, N.D., History  Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU. North Dakota State University, 2004. Web. 30 Oct. 2012


The Unitarian Church

Unitarian church photo

The Unitarian Church was organized in February of 1890.

It was located on the corner of Ninth Street South and Second Avenue.

This photo was taken in 1899 and Richmond Fisk, D.D. was the minster at the time.[1]Unitarian Church

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] Caron, John. “Fargo, N.D., History Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU.” Fargo, N.D., History  Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU. North Dakota State University, 2004. Web. 30 Oct. 2012 <http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/churches/unitarian.htm>


St. Mark’s English Lutheran Church

Rev. Ulery photo
St. Mark's English Lutheran ChurchRev. W.F. Ulery came to Fargo in 1885 to start a Lutheran church whose services were done in English as all of the services offered in the area where in the people’s native tongues.  He persuaded the Southern Railway Depot to allow him to use their building to teach Sunday School.  During his two years of teaching Sunday school he raised the $2,000 needed to build a church proper on a three lots on the corner of 8th street and 4th Ave north.  The construction on the church started on July 25, 1886 and the first service was held on May 18, 1887.  There were 10 members of the congregation at that time.[1]St marks English Lutheran_01

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] Caron, John. “Fargo, N.D., History Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU.” Fargo, N.D., History  Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU. North Dakota State University, 2004. Web. 30 Oct. 2012 <http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/churches/st-marks-eng-luth.htm>


Pontoppidan Lutheran Church

Pontoppidan Church

On December 14, 1877 25 charter members met in the home of G. Johnson to organize this church and came up with the name Pontoppidan Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Congregation.  The name was changed in 1878 to the First Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fargo and changed again only a month later to Pontoppidan Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Church.  The foundation of the church was laid in August 1878 at 415 3rd Street North and was completed in the fall of 1879.  It was lost in the fire of 1893.[1]Pontoppidan

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] Caron, John. “Fargo, N.D., History Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU.” Fargo, N.D., History  Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU. North Dakota State University, 2004. Web. 30 Oct. 2012 <http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/churches/pontoppidan.htm<


Plymouth Congregational Church

Plymouth Congregational Church photo

 On April 25, 1885 the Plymouth Congregational Church was organized by Revered William Ewing.  The congregation had 10-12 original members, but by 1893 it had grown to 50 members with Reverend A.H. Tebbets as its pastor.  Reverend O.C. Clark built the first church on Ninth Ave North near Tenth Street, but the building was moved to the west side of Broadway between 8th ave and 9th ave in 1884. That building was blown down on July 7, 1980 by a gale.  The church was rebuilt again at a cost of $3000 and was dedicated on December 21, 1890.  [1]Plymouth Congregational_01

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] Caron, John. “Fargo, N.D., History Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU.” Fargo, N.D., History  Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU. North Dakota State University, 2004. Web. 30 Oct. 2012 < http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/churches/plymouth-cong.htm>