Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Heritage preserved

Bramble celebrates 100th anniversary of orthodox church

Marcus White
Posted 8/29/18

BRAMBLE – Homesteading communities across the Midwest have come and gone leaving little behind of what once was.

While many in northeastern Minnesota have forgotten the days when farms and …

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Heritage preserved

Bramble celebrates 100th anniversary of orthodox church

Posted

BRAMBLE – Homesteading communities across the Midwest have come and gone leaving little behind of what once was.

While many in northeastern Minnesota have forgotten the days when farms and ranches dotted this remote portion of the Littlefork River Valley, this small community in southeastern Koochiching County continues to preserve a most visible symbol of their early heritage.

Many small, rural communities have lost their churches over the years as the early homesteaders who cleared the forests and farmed their poor fields for a time eventually moved on in hopes of an easier life, leaving their houses of worship to fall into disrepair.

But dedication from a small group of devotees of the St. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, located along Hwy. 65, have made sure that this church building does not suffer a similar fate.

This month, family members of the long-lost Bramble community returned to celebrate the church’s 100th anniversary.

“The last parishioner was my dad,” Todd Lucachick said. His was also the last funeral held at the church in 2012. The Lucachicks built the church along with their neighbors, the Sorokies, and many other community members over the course of four years, beginning in 1915. Now three generations later, the Lucachicks are one of the few families left in Bramble, and they have taken it under their charge to make sure the church is preserved.

“I grew up with the church in the backyard,” Lucachick said. “My dad was a bus driver for Orr High School. There hasn’t been this many people in Bramble since Tikhvin Festivals in the 1970s when the archbishop from Chicago attended.”

Those festivals drew an excess of 200 people to the church, and this month’s celebration drew 225, much more than Bramble’s current population of six.

Saving history

August’s celebration nearly didn’t happen. Much like the homesteading communities of the past, the church itself almost became just one more relic of days gone by. That was until a Grand Rapids priest got involved.

“The reason it is still there is because of Fr. Paul Berg in Grand Rapids,” Lucachick said. “He got involved with it in 1967. He literally showed up to the neighbors who were about to hand it over to the historical society in International Falls. The society was going to give them 20 gallons of paint. The reverend thought they would give the church away and turn it into a museum.”

Instead Rev. Berg arranged to help the community find its own paint, and the restoration on the church began.

The church only offered regular religious services for a few years. It continued to be used for occasional services and community functions for a few more decades but had largely fallen into disuse by the 1960s.

Lucachick points out that even in the congregation’s heyday, it only held services during the summer months since a small stove in the corner was barely enough to keep the few parishioners warm through Christmas services in January.

Twenty years after the work began, the church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by Andrew Lucachick.

An old photo accompanies the original application, with the church still in need of much repair.

Those last repairs would be completed, and by 2011, the Lucachicks and their neighbors and many helpers had fully repaired the old dome and replaced the crosses that greeted visitors from its rooftop.

Finding family

For the Lucachicks and the few who stayed after most of the homesteaders left, knowing where they came from was relatively easy with their history quite literally in their backyard.

Others though were not so lucky, and their histories were nearly reclaimed by the Koochiching County swamps.

Marge Runnakko (Polenik) is one of those people. She spoke excitedly about her family via phone from her home near Minneapolis.

“My grandfather came from Poland in 1905, and he went to Cleveland,” she said. “When he was there, he learned about the land that was being given away in Koochiching County in northern Minnesota. He moved around 1909. He homesteaded on 160 acres in the county and found out that farming wasn’t going to work out in northern Minnesota. It was too rocky. He stayed there until 1919 as a part-time iron mine blast man.”

Other than that information, however, the trail of family history went cold.

The family had eight children, but they were too young to have learned much family history by the time their parents died. Runnakko’s grandmother died first, in 1927 from pneumonia, while her grandfather was killed in a mining accident shortly after.

An early genealogical search by Runnakko’s uncle was unsuccessful, and it would be years before she herself picked up where he’d left off.

The second search began with a genetics test and a search through church records.

“When I tried to find church records, I knew they had belonged to a Byzantine church in Chisholm,” she said. “I still had one aunt that was alive. I had her DNA checked, and it was 100-percent Polish.”

But Chisholm wasn’t the church she was looking for. There had been another.

“I found a book about the Bramble Church,” Runnakko said. “My grandfather’s name was written on it. I didn’t know anything about the church until I found the book. Something moved me to type up my story.”

And earlier this summer, her research led her to the Bramble Church’s Facebook page, and to Lucachick. Soon, everything began to be more clear, and while the family history was still foggy, she was beginning to learn more details.

“Some locals took me to where my grandfather’s land was,” Runnakko said. “I took some rocks as a souvenir. The experience brought me back to what their life could have been even though they weren’t there for a long time.”

And as she has learned more, the few stories and memories she heard and recall as a child began to make sense.

“Because I don’t have a lot of stories, I can only surmise, she said. “There was a person named Louis Billow. When I found one of my uncle’s baptisms, that person was his godfather. My grandfather was pretty involved, that he had a friend who was integral in starting the church as the godparent to my uncle. The church played a big part of their social life. When my grandfather came from Poland he played the clarinet and he and my dad and the older kids would entertain. It was a nine-key clarinet, not made anymore. It said in that article (the book) that it was his prized possession he brought from Poland.”

She added, “I felt like I was bringing my ancestors to life again. Walking on the boards of the church and knowing they had been there and seeing an authentic church service. And seeing how they’d worshiped.”

Going forward

While the population of Bramble is sure to never return, the tenure of the church, no matter how little it is used, is far from over.

Lucachick said the church still has a yearly service the weekend after Labor Day, although it won’t be held this year because of the earlier anniversary celebration.

With descendants coming from as far away as California and Georgia, the congregation is alive and well, even if it is scattered.

“I hope that this group will be able to keep the church going,” Runnakko said. “It is amazing they have done it for as many years as they have.”

Lucachick said the work isn’t done, and the small group of preservationists carry on their work to keep the building welcoming to the public.

“We’re going to keep the little Bramble Church alive. That’s our motto.”

Comments

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Karen Lucachick

Very well written, Marcus. My husband is Todd. I just subscribed to your newspaper. Can I get this issue in print for our archives? Thank you!

Thursday, August 30, 2018