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As Small Towns Fade, So Do Houses of Worship

Religion: Dwindling populations reduce congregations' viability. Some of the churches date back to late 1800s.


VIRGINIA, Minn. — She first came to the red-brick temple in her father's arms, carried past stained-glass windows, up to the stage for a special day. She was 1 week old.

Now she's 83.

He came as a young, newly married doctor to this rugged Iron Range mining town, joining his father in the crowded pews where they attended services almost every Friday and Saturday.

Now he's 90.

Dorothy Karon and John Siegel are the last active members of B'nai Abraham synagogue, survivors of a once-thriving Jewish community, mostly Eastern European immigrants and their descendants who prayed and played poker, married and mourned under one roof for much of the last century. They came when the walls rang with the Yiddish banter of newcomers eager to learn English and find their place in a new world.

They stayed when the halls fell silent as people died or moved away. The pews emptied, services stopped, the six Torahs -- handwritten scrolls of the first five books of the Old Testament -- were donated, stolen or sent elsewhere to be preserved. But the synagogue still stands. And Karon and Siegel, as stubborn and proud as the building itself, are determined that it be preserved.

"As long as we're alive, this building is going to stay alive," vowed Karon, who still drives to the synagogue in her 1992 Cadillac, although she only lives at the other end of the block. "I feel connected to this building."

"It's part of [the] family," Siegel echoed. "I can't see letting it go."

The struggle to save religious sanctuaries -- along with their history and heritage -- is a story that is repeating itself in small, shrinking towns throughout the country.

"As rural America empties, so do the houses of worship," said Marilyn Chiat, an art historian in Minnesota who specializes in religious art and architecture.

Many places date back to settlers who tilled the soil in the late 19th century and founded these now-fading communities. "They were built by people who came to this country and couldn't make a statement individually, but they could do it collectively," Chiat said.

In the town of Virginia, she says, building an elegant temple was a public pronouncement -- an attitude not shared by some in big cities who feared anti-Semitism and didn't want to attract attention.

"They felt comfortable enough to be visible," Chiat said.

B'nai Abraham is the only one of four synagogues remaining on the Iron Range, a melting pot of European immigrants that once included about 1,000 Jews, including the Zimmerman family and their son, Bob Dylan, who grew up in nearby Hibbing.

The 93-year-old temple, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has managed to defy the fate of other houses of worship that have auctioned off their contents -- chairs, organs, stained-glass windows -- then closed.

Delafield Evangelical Lutheran Church, in western Minnesota, held a final potluck dinner in 1998, then closed, ending its 125-year-history. Mark Brodin, who was baptized and confirmed there, chronicled itis demise in a documentary. "Watching your past and your family's past deteriorate -- that's a hard thing to do," he said.

The white clapboard church was hauled away on a flatbed truck -- its steeple had been removed. It was born again as part of a historical and tourist site 22 miles away.

But many sit idle. In North Dakota, about 400 of 2,000 churches are vacant, according to a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. More than 75% are in towns of 2,500 or less.

In the Dakotas, there once were more than 40 Disciples of Christ churches; now there are two. In rural Iowa, 10 Methodist churches have closed in the last five years.

In Rolling Fork and Greenwood, Miss., and Wharton, Texas, synagogues have closed. In Lexington, Miss., and Helena, Ark., others are in jeopardy. In southern New Jersey, a campaign is under way to save nine temples, some dating to the 1880s.

Some congregations hope to survive by bringing back a familiar figure from America's past: the circuit-riding preacher who kept his sermons in his saddle bags.

In South Dakota, a retired minister has returned to the pulpit -- actually, three of them..

A church or synagogue in a small town is for more than prayer, says Gary Goreham, chairman of the department of sociology and anthropology at North Dakota State University. "It's the glue that holds much of a community together. It's a place that provides meaning, identity and belonging."

It was all that -- and more -- to Dorothy Karon and John Siegel.

The story of B'nai Abraham mirrors the life of small-town America at the turn of the 20th century: a flood of immigrants staking their claim in a strange land.

Virginia, about an hour north of Duluth, was a boom town, blessed with iron ore mines and lumber. In the 1890s, there were 15 mines among the towering curtains of evergreens and poplars. A decade later, it was home to the world's biggest white-pine sawmill.

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