Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Norwegian Parochial Schools in the Midwest

Erica here: Last week I posted about my field trip to Vesterheim: The Norwegian-American Museum and Cultural Center in Decorah, Iowa. One of the photos I posted was the interior of a Norwegian Parochial School, and I promised to tell you more about it in a later post. Guess what? It's later! :)

So what is a Norwegian Parochial School? 

To understand the Norwegian Parochial Schools and the Norwegian immigrants who built them, one must look back to their home country, Norway. In the Old Country, Norway had a State-Sponsored Religion. Lutheranism. The State provided the churches, the pastors, pastoral training, and in the schools, Lutheranism was taught and practiced. 

When Norwegian immigrants came to America, they were somewhat adrift, since there was no one official religion. As they moved west across the Mississippi, they had no pastors and teachers. So they wrote home, asking if there were any young ministerial students who would consider coming to America to lead them.

Norwegian-Americans were not only concerned with the need for pastors, but also for teachers for their children. The "common school controversy" over the effect of public school and the cultural assimilation of immigrant children was widely debated in the middle of the 1800's. Parents were concerned that their children were not going to know the culture and religion from whence their heritage sprang.

Among Norwegian-Americans, a compromise was reached. The Norwegian Parochial School which operated for two weeks in the fall and two weeks in the spring semesters.



This is the Rovang Norwegian Parochial School, erected in 1879 south and east of Decorah, Iowa. The purpose of the school was to educate Norwegian-American immigrant children in the culture and religion of their parents.

For two weeks each semester, the immigrant children were dismissed from the local public school and allowed to attend their parochial school. Instruction was in Norwegian, and each day began and ended with devotions. The curriculum included the Lutheran catechism, Bible History, Norwegian history, hymns, and at the end of the day a bit about world politics. The school was taught by a traveling teacher who went from school to school, staying two weeks in each.



The Rovang school was constructed of logs and mortar, with a plank floor and shake shingles. It consists of one room only with wooden bench desks and a single teacher's desk and blackboard at the front.  


Along the center of the ceiling in this picture you can see the stove pipe. The stove sat in the back, left corner, and the stove pipe extended all the way across the room to exit the building in the center front. This was in order to keep the heat of the smoke inside the building as long as possible. Two boys were tasked with keeping the fire going all day.


Four windows let in lots of light, and the children would've been segregated, girls on the left hand side, and boys on the right. Smaller children sat in the front and the larger students sat in the back. Each desk had a shelf beneath for books, and in this museum, each desk was supplied with several books, all written in Norwegian, each at least 100 years old, that people could leaf through and examine.


Black boards were just that, boards painted black. No special surface, no special paint, just a few planks of wood painted black and slapped onto the wall. All instruction at the school was in Norwegian, and the children were expected to speak Norwegian while attending.


A kerosene lamp with reflector amplified the natural light. Parents provided the kerosene, the fuel for the fire, the building, the books, and the money for a teacher.


There was no well at the Rovang school, so each day, two of the girls would walk the mile to the nearest neighbor to fetch a bucket of water for the day's usage. 

The Rovang school was in use up to the end of World War 1. Johan Hagen was the instructor from 1888 to 1918. 

I loved learning this small part of the Norwegian-American experience. 

Do you have any Norwegian heritage? I don't on my side of the family, though my husband has a bit. His great-grandmother was a Mickelson. :)


Erica Vetsch:
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4 comments:

  1. Way cool. My dad went to a one room school house while growing up outside Omaha, NE and Sioux Falls, SD! Love the pictures. He also released all the pony's one day (taking his out on his own of course) and there was the tale of the skunks who found there way under the school (on stilts? or raised) one day when he was particularly bored!!! Tough on the teachers . . . my dad!

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    1. I love it! In the story I'm working on right now, a skunk takes up residence under the school's front porch, and extricating brings disaster to my poor heroine. :)

      Your dad sounds like a handful. :)

      My MIL attended a one room country school up until seventh grade when she had to board in town each week for school, coming home to the farm only on the weekends. I loved hearing her stories.

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  2. Interesting post, Erica - thanks!! Too bad people can't come to an agreement of children being schooled in both religion and public school subjects today, as it seems to have been in the above situation.

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    1. I know, right? I wonder what would happen if parents and children were given the option of two weeks each semester to study their religion and history and culture?

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