South Dakota’s longest operating church is open again.
First Presbyterian Church north of Flandreau on Highway 13 has been holding services since May, starting with two people and growing to about 15. The church hadn’t been open for a special service since 2017. The water was shut off eight years ago.
William John Burshiem serves as the pastor, a calling that kept nagging at him.
“It was a calling from God through me. It kept going over and over in mind why is this church not running?” he said. He trained in the Presbyterian ministry and decided to open First Presbyterian up to anyone who would come.
His sermons and the hymns are in Dakota, but the sermon is also delivered in English. Sunday morning worship is at 10.
“I think listening to the Dakota language, singing our hymns, is very meaningful because it’s something we haven’t had in a long time,” said Deb Wakeman, an elder. “We all grew up in this church.”
That connection and memories of past services are important.
“I feel like we all have a connection. We all know each other. There’s a closeness,” said Gina Burshiem, also an elder.
The church is a way to combine culture and religion, said Jessica Hovland, whose two children were baptized at the church recently.
“You walk into an old wooden church. The focus is on the service and worship,” she said. “I think it’s needed. It’s nice to just have a place where you can mix your faith and your culture together.”
She likes the historical value of the church and the connection to the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe.
The “Bend in the River” church was organized in 1869 by members of the Dakota Indian Presbyterian Church and built in 1873 by Dakota men who had been prisoners after the Dakota Conflict of 1862. In 1966, it was designated the oldest church continuously used in South Dakota.
In 1978, a fellowship hall was added, and in 2002-2003, the church received word it would get a state grant to restore the church building.
Kim and Steve Patterson were married in the church in 1990, a place where her family had a long connection. Her great grandfather the Rev. John Eastman and grandfather Harry C. Jones were ministers there, and family are buried in the surrounding cemetery, as they are for other members, too. Her children were baptized in the church and she taught Sunday School.
She grew up attending, including going with her grandma to ladies aid meetings where women shared sewing and fellowship.
“It reminds me of my childhood. I just have really good memories from my childhood,” she said. “We had potlucks. The kids were outside playing. The families just always came together. It was so much fun.”
Historically, the church was started by Native Americans from Santee, Neb., who sought religious freedom and didn’t want to live on a reservation. Those people are the foundation of the local tribe, she said.
“I’m very thankful for my family history of being Christian and passing that on.” Patterson said. “We want that to come back. We want people to find Christ there.”
Steve Patterson said it’s important to know the Bible, and they back William John Burshiem’s calling. “He said he was called to do this. We believe it.”
Burshiem, 58, grew up going to First Presbyterian and wants other families and young people to hear about Christ.
“We’re just hoping to get a strong membership back and get that church back up and running,” he said.
Burshiem’s goal is to bring Native people back to church. “To bring the family back to the church is our main goal. To let them find Christ again,” he said. “We lost something in that generation where we weren’t teaching the word of God.”