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Building Community, Keeping the Faith

Building Community, Keeping the Faith

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German Catholic Vernacular Architecture in a Rural Minnesota Parish

Author Fred W. Peterson

Minnesota Historical Society Press (November 15, 1998)

Conveys an understanding of the vernacular architecture in the parish and the German-American culture that infused it with meaning.


The German Catholic immigrants who founded St. John the Baptist parish on the central Minnesota prairie effected a remarkable transfer of tradition to their new environment. In this study, Fred Peterson documents, analyzes, and interprets the community these settlers built between 1858 and 1915. He reveals how their folk culture, aesthetic values, and religious beliefs were directly embodied in the houses, dairy farms, and churches they planned and constructed.

Peterson’s main focus is on some 30 distinctive farmhouses built with locally produced brick in and around Meire Grove, the village at the center of the parish. Employing historical and contemporary photographs and his own precise architectural renderings, he shows how settlers modeled the layouts of their new homes after ones they had known in Germany—and adapted them to the demands of prairie life.

Equally important, Peterson explores how the secular and the sacred were intertwined in St. John the Baptist parish, how piety not only suffused parishioners’ lives but also affected every aspect of their built environment.

Through its treatment of a single agricultural community, the book offers a perspective on similar ethnic enclaves in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Building Community, Keeping the Faith is vital reading for students of architecture, religion, immigration, and ethnicity--indeed for anyone interested in the complex influence European culture exerted on the development of America.

Author information

Fred Peterson is a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He is the author of Homes in the Heartland: Balloon Frame Farmhouses of the Upper Midwest, 1850-1920 (1992).

Reviews and news

Praise for Building Community, Keeping the Faith:

"Fascinating, valuable, and strongly recommended. Peterson’s analysis of the structures in this German Catholic community makes an important and original contribution both to the burgeoning scholarship on American vernacular building traditions and to an understanding of the Minnesota landscape."
Kathleen Neils Conzen, professor of American history, University of Chicago, and author of Making Their Own America: Assimilation Theory and the German Peasant Pioneer

"This is a thoroughly and delightfully grounded study of German-American rural building and the life inside them. Creatively interpreting drawings, photographs, interviews, and archival sources, Peterson shows how German settlers in Minnesota wove social and religious meaning out of individual homes--all tuned, as the author puts it, to keeping a 'good farm maintained in the family name.'"
Paul Groth, Associate Professor of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley, and co-editor of Understanding Ordinary Landscapes

  • 224 pages
  • 7.75 x 9 inches
  • ISBN: 9780873513692

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