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Historical Society takes on project to photograph every church in Kandiyohi County

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As part of a multi-year project by the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, New London-based photographer Gregory Harp is in the process of photographing every church in Kandiyohi County. (CAROLYN LANGE | TRIBUNE)2 / 2

It’s mid-afternoon on a cloudy, cool January day as Gregory Harp sets up his tripod and camera in the minimally-heated Norwegian-style stave church at the Green Lake Bible Camp in Spicer.

“I’m looking for the shot,” he said. “I’m looking for something interesting and in every church there’s something — regardless of how humble.”

As part of a multi-year project by the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, Harp is in the process of photographing every church in the county.

That includes large, thriving churches with a long history here, church buildings that no longer have a congregation and new congregations that meet in storefront buildings and schools.

It’s estimated there are at least 150 churches in the county.

Harp said he’s photographed about 40 so far.

This photo of the Green Lake Chapel is an example of those that will be in the book. (GREGORY HARP)

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Harp of the project that he began last fall and will be continuing for the next four years. “It’s been a joy.”

The first part of the two-phase project will be completed this spring when a collection of photos featuring 24 churches will be on display at the Historical Society’s museum in Willmar.

The second phase of the project will culminate in 2020 — during the official sesquitennial of the county — when the photos from all the churches and information about the congregations will be published in a hardcover book.

The project will not feature archive photos from “back in the day,” said Jill Wohnoutka, director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.

The goal is to “capture the churches of today for the future,” she said.

People assume that everything the Historical Society collects is old, she said.

But Wohnoutka said this is a project to “discover the story of Kandiyohi County” and to collect photos and information of an important part of the community’s life before it’s gone so it’s preserved for the future.

The initial photos of 24 churches that will be unveiled this spring is funded by the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council. They will be displayed in the museum in May and June and will then be displayed at the North American State Bank through August.

Gregory Harp photographs the chapel at the Green Lake Lutheran Bible Camp in Spicer. (CAROLYN LANGE | TRIBUNE)

Prints, notecards and calendars for the next four years featuring the church photos will be sold as a way to raise money for the book.

The glossy book is expected to feature multiple photos of the churches, including interior and exterior shots, Wohnoutka said.

Making churches the focal point of a project makes sense, she said. “When people come to a community, whether it’s 150 years ago or now, they find their church and their school.”

“The churches, from an historical perspective, are kind of the life blood of the community, whether you’re religious or not,” Harp said.

“I think churches are representative of who we are and where we’ve come from and, in some ways, where we’re going,” he said. “This is a perfect project, especially for a sesquicentennial.”

Although some old churches have been demolished, Wohnoutka said there are many “beautiful, gorgeous churches” still standing and many new churches that have been built since Kandiyohi County was established.

“Every church has it’s charm, regardless of how ornate or how humble it is,” said Harp, who expects to visit most churches several times to capture them in different seasons, lighting and when different activities are taking place.

A majority of the photos have been taken when the churches are empty, but Harp has also photographed congregations participating in various activities, like the annual lutefisk dinner at Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar and the Advent service at the Old Log Church in rural Sunburg, that capture a moment in time.

Photography and history go “hand-in-hand,” Harp said. “Every photographer is an historian, one fraction of a second at a time.”

Because so many longtime community churches share a common beginning of having been started in a pioneer’s cabin, Wohnoutka said the book may not include deep histories on each church.

There will be “bits of history” but the goal is to “capture what is going on right now,” she said.

A volunteer with the Historical Society has been conducting interviews with some congregations, and churches are invited to provide information for the book that “captures what the churches have become,” Wohnoutka said.

A sneak-peek of some of the photos Harp has taken of the churches can be seen on the Kandiyohi County Historical Society’s Facebook page.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750