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Early Churches


The first church bell to ring in North Dakota was at a mission called St. Joe. It was known as the "Angelus Bell."

For some time in the early 1800s, French Canadian trappers and mixed-blood Indians around Pembina attended a small Roman Catholic chapel built there in 1812; it is the earliest known church in Dakota territory.

About thirty miles west of Pembina, Norman Kittson established a different trading post known as St. Joseph. In 1848, a young Presbyterian minister, Alonzo Barnard, arrived there with North Dakota’s first printing press and first melodeon. Barnard also established the state’s first Protestant church in St. Joseph.

That same year, Father George Belcourt arrived in Pembina and reopened the Catholic mission there. Belcourt had worked among the Chippewa in Canada and was fluent in their language. He built a log chapel and translated the catechism into Chippewa.

A couple years later, Father Belcourt established a second Catholic mission, this one in St. Joseph, where he built a church, a school, a rectory and a convent for the Sisters of the Propagation of the Faith, who staffed the school. It was here that the “Angelus Bell” rang for the first time.

Meanwhile, Belcourt’s Protestant peer, Reverend Barnard, was being coaxed by his Baptist interpreter, James Tanner, to establish his second mission, to be among the Chippewa Indians in the Pembina hills. Tanner, who was half Indian, wanted Reverend Barnard to help his mother's people there.

It began to look like musical chairs as Reverend Barnard and Father Belcourt swapped settlements; as Father Belcourt was expanded in St. Joseph, Reverend Barnard left for Pembina to minister to the Chippewa.

Two years later, a new young minister, Elijah Terry, came to take Barnard’s place at the new Pembina mission, so the reverend went back to St. Joseph. Unfortunately, Terry was ambushed and scalped by Sioux Indians as he was cutting logs for a new chapel. The interpreter, James Tanner, couldn’t carry on by himself and was forced to abandon Pembina.

The following summer, Reverend Barnard again left St. Joseph for the Pembina mission. He brought along his wife and children, the David Spencer family and an older man, John Smith, to help. In August, Mrs. Spencer was killed by an Indian arrow as she held her baby at her cabin window. And Reverend Barnard’s wife also died after developing pneumonia from exposure at the Selkirk settlement where her husband had taken her for help. The three missionaries, known as "The Martyrs of St. Joe," are buried together, surrounded by an iron fence.

And Father Belcourt? He retired his St. Joseph mission in 1859 when trapping and trading dried up and people moved away. But in 1877, the town of "St. Joe" was revived, platted, and renamed Walhalla, where the “Angelus Bell” now rings above St. Boniface Catholic Church.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm