Sunday, 14 May 2017

Canada-Norway Roots

Article published in Saskatchewan newspaper

Bjelland Kirke in Norway
This article was published in the Wadena News, May 1, 2017 under the title "Land of ancestors provides familiar conversation."

We have reprinted an update for our readers.

Nut Lake Lutheran Church’s Norwegian Connection                 By Myrna Petersen

Growing up close to the little white church on the hill northeast of Rose Valley, I’d seen photographs and heard stories of how the original church pioneers had designed Nut Lake Church similar to a Lutheran church built in Bjelland, Norway.

My maternal grandparents, Ole and Anna Bjerland immigrated from Bjelland, Norway. They homesteaded a mile east of where Nut Lake Church originated, and now over a century later, the original farm still remains in the Bjerland family.

An once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came last Fall while touring Jutland, a large peninsula in Denmark’s north. While reviewing maps, I realized that Bjelland is located in the southeast corner of Norway, only a short ferry trip from Denmark across the North Sea, to reach the region where my maternal ancestors originated.

With this knowledge I quickly attempted to connect with any long-lost relatives who might be able to fill in the gaps. Fate was with me when an 88-year-old second cousin from Michigan came to the rescue and provided names of Norwegian relatives still living in the Bjelland area!

In late October 2016, my Danish hostess and I boarded a 7-decker Color Line Super-Speed ship at the Danish port of Hirtshals. After a 3-½ hour ferry trip across the North Sea’s Skaggerak Strait we arrived at the Norwegian seaport city of Kristiansand. From there, it was only an hour car drive up well-maintained mountainous roads to reach the small village of Bjelland.

There, only a hundred meters from the village sign, was the Bjelland church where my Grandpa Ole Bjerland married Anna Kaaland on June 24, 1905. The white church with it’s surrounding graveyard appeared eerily similar to the one I grew up close-to in NE Saskatchewan. And gathered to greet us were 8 members of their community, including several relatives who I soon learned, live very much like their Canadian kinsfolk.
Bjelland kirke has designated heritage conservation status, as there was a church on this site as early as 1429. A second church was erected in the 1600’s, and the current building, dates from 1793. A wood structure, the church has 300 seats and three galleries. Our guide, Torgny Sandland, played the church’s pipe organ for many years and has a wealth of knowledge about the church history and surrounding community.  

Angels are painted on the ceilings, and rose paintings on the walls. Torgny told us how decades earlier, the church bishop believed the paintings were distracting the parishioners from listening to the preacher’s message so he ordered the paintings covered up with green paint. It was only in 1944, when the local community banded together to supply their labor and financing, that the paintings were restored. Today, visitors can appreciate the folk paintings of acclaimed artists Gutorm Persson Eftestøl and Knud Knudsen Årstøl.

A most memorable time came when I was given permission to play some of my original instrumental compositions on the church piano. As the acoustics of these ancient walls resounded, I was struck with the knowledge that ‘my sound’ had deep roots in the place. In fact, one could surmise the seed of the music originated there. 

The cemetery surrounding the church building is kept splendidly groomed as a lovely garden. At the rear of the property is a forest grove with sounds of a nearby stream in dispersed with distant cowbells clanging. Peaceful indeed! 
Nut Lake Church in Canada

Checking out headstones, I came upon the grave of Jenny Koland, my grandmother’s two-year old niece. Discovering the tall tombstone of my paternal great-grandparents I was hit with the realization that although thousands of kilometers apart, the connection between two churches and patches of land is very powerful.

A horses’ hitch-pole still stands: Reminder of the ancient practice of tying up those who brought disgrace on the community, (i.e., thieves or adulterers) so the community could heap condemnation by ‘spitting’ on them.  Seems pretty bizarre and barbaric in this age.

Torgny presented another historical surprise a few miles down the road in Koland. While not related, he knew the home is the same place where my Grandma Anna was born in 1888. Torgny invited the entire group back to tour his place. Although additions have been made to the house over the years, we were able to see the original partition where my Grandma Anna lived. We were then shown true Norwegian hospitality as his wife Tordis prepared delicious home- buns and soup for us. 

Sitting around a large kitchen table and listening to the Norwegian conversations seemed so familiar. Showing strangers hospitality was the same type of environment that I grew up while living in the Nut Lake Church community. In fact that entire weekend I kept hearing this sentence repeatedly in my mind, “You need to know where you came from to understand where you are going.”

Next we were off to the original farm where my Grandpa Bjerland lived. Up, higher in the mountains, beautifully set on a hill and overlooking a lake. One wonders how our ancestors adjusted from such a forest area to the flat Saskatchewan prairies. The property is still in the Bjerland family, and is now owned by my second cousin Kjell Egil Leland and his wife Ingrid. Their son Vegard and his family live in the Bjerland house, one that replaced the original homestead, which burnt down several years ago.

Due to Norwegian laws providing family members the status of preferred buyers in the sale of agriculture, the passing of family farms from one generation to another is an important part of their society. So much so, that I was also able to view the 400-year-old farmyard on my Great-grandma Siri Bjerland’s side, which still remains under the ownership of a relative.

Perhaps Canada could learn some lessons from Norway when it comes to the control of farm homesteads.