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St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church White River, South Dakota


Snapshots of Congregations from Around the Church of the Lutheran Confession

The nearly hundred-year history of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church is one that stands as a testament to God’s enduring grace. It is a history that goes back almost as far as the town of White River itself, which was founded in 1911 (population 581 according to the 2010 census). St. Paul’s had its beginning in the Wisconsin Synod. In August of 1919, Pastor Theodore Bauer of Mission, South Dakota, began serving Lutherans in the White River area with occasional services. The congregation called its first full-time pastor in 1922, and after steady growth officially organized on November 16, 1924.

In those early days, services were held in various members’ homes, in the Congregational Church, and even down under the cottonwoods along the banks of the Little White River. In 1926 work was begun on the present church building. In January, 1927, the church building was finished and was dedicated to the glory of God.

The congregation went through some very hard times in the 1930’s and 40’s. The combined plagues of the Great Depression and drought hit the White River area hard, and many of St. Paul’s members moved away to different parts of the country. At one point in the 1940’s, the average attendance at worship services was only six, and there was talk of closing St. Paul’s doors. But the Lord’s sufficient grace was with this small group, and membership rebounded.

Under the guidance of Pastor Kenneth Hallauer,  St. Paul’s left the Wisconsin Synod in 1959 and eventually joined the newly formed Church of the Lutheran Confession as one of its founding members. From 1959 onward, St. Paul’s and Peace Lutheran Church of Mission, South Dakota, began to be served as a joint parish. The downstairs of Peace’s church building served as the parsonage until 1974, when a parsonage was built in White River. This would be the home of the pastors serving the joint parish of Peace and St. Paul’s until 2002. Currently, the parsonage is being rented out to a local family.

Over the years the beautiful old church building has seen a number of renovations and improvements. In June of 1982 the old church bell tower and entryway were removed. In November 1982 the new entryway, which provided easier access both to the church sanctuary and church basement, was dedicated. Over the past five years other improvements have been completed, including a new steel roof, new church sign, and replacement of the sanctuary windows.

Since 2002 St. Paul’s Lutheran Church has been part of a “tri-parish” along with Peace of Mission and Grace of Valentine, Nebraska. They have been jointly served since that time by the pastor from Valentine. For the past six-plus years, St. Paul’s has had combined worship services with Peace, Mission. For a few years St. Paul’s church building went unused and worship services were only being held at Peace in Mission. Since 2011, however, St. Paul’s church building has hosted the worship service for both Peace and St. Paul’s congregations on the last Sunday of every month at 8:00 A.M. (the other Sundays of the month the worship service is held at Peace, Mission). We praise God that attendance at the monthly St. Paul’s worship services has been consistently good, with an average attendance of eighteen. The combined membership of St. Paul’s and Peace currently stands at forty souls. This small, but faithful and close-knit group cherishes its worship time together with their brothers and sisters in Christ from Peace each Sunday.

St. Paul’s also joins with Peace and Grace, Valentine for the “Tri-Parish Mission Festival” worship service and potluck meal each fall. Its members have also supported and participated with Peace and Grace in other worship services and church activities such as summer Vacation Bible School and the Arise and Shine 20’s – 30’s Retreat in Pillager, Minnesota.

The town of White River itself is located on US-83 approximately 45 miles north of the Nebraska border. It overlooks a breathtaking vista of a deep valley to the west filled with rolling hills, buttes, ponds, and streams. It is named after the nearby White River (and Little White River, which runs just north of the town), and yes, the river does look “white” (or at least white-gray) from the eroded sand, clay, and volcanic ash carried by the river from its source near the Badlands. Ranching is the major industry in the White River area, and the region is known for producing some of the best beef in the country. Many of the members of St. Paul’s and their extended families are ranchers as well.

Since 1912 White River has been the home of Frontier Days, a community celebration held each August that attracts people from around the world. In 2016 Frontier Days celebrated its 105th year. The rodeo is the main attraction of the festival and features all of the major rodeo events as well as a wild horse race. Also incorporated into the celebration are a parade, wagon train, 5K run, arts festival, dances under the stars, and a traditional Lakota powwow.

You would be hard pressed to find more kind-hearted, down-to-earth, and generous folks than the people of St. Paul’s and the White River area. The next time you are traveling on US-83 in South Dakota I encourage you to stop by and join us and see for yourself!

Luke Bernthal served as pastor of the tri-parish of Grace Lutheran Church of Valentine, Nebraska, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of White River, South Dakota, and Peace Lutheran Church of Mission, South Dakota.