(This story originally was published in the Capital Journal on Sept. 24, 2017. Congregations and pastors in Pierre and Fort Pierre announced this week their plans to hold services again in the chapel this summer.)

A congregation of 40 gathered on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Oahe Chapel north of Pierre and Fort Pierre to thank God for 140 years. It was 1877 when the Rev. Thomas Riggs took $1,400 in donations to buy lumber in Sioux City, Iowa and shipped it by steamboat up the Missouri to the mission site northeast of Fort Pierre.

“We’re home!” was Josephine (Robinson) Venner’s feeling on Sunday as she sat with her cousin, Harvey Robinson, and her sister, Helen (Robinson) Tuveson in the school-style pews.

The three were baptized by the Rev. Thomas Riggs, the Congregational minister who founded the Oahe Mission in 1872 north of Pierre on the east bank of the Missouri River. He used a log cabin until this one-room chapel/school was built, completed in September 1878.

“We went to Sunday School here,” said Helen (Robinson) Tuveson.

Their kinship goes back and is close: “Our grandfathers were twins,” Tuveson said of the sisters and their cousin, Harvey.

The three of them joined three dozen others — including Venner’s son, Mark, and his wife Denise — on Sunday at worship, thanksgiving and talking over old memories.

The Venners’ home farm can be seen north of the chapel, across the lake on its east side.

The Rev. Riggs died in 1940.

In the 1950s the chapel was moved out of the Peoria Flats area where the Oahe Mission had been for nearly a century, moved before the waters of Lake Oahe could rise and cover it. Oahe Dam, built from 1948-1958, created the huge lake by 1962.

Now on the southeast corner of the lake, next to Oahe Dam, the chapel is a legacy of Riggs’ ministry to Dakota

The Rev. Thomas Riggs’ father, Stephen Riggs, is known for preaching the first Christian sermon to Dakota Sioux in their own language, in 1840.

His son, Theodore F. Riggs, became a physician in Pierre and his name is on the high school.

The Rev. Emily Munger recently moved to Pierre from Huron, to be pastor at at the First Congregational/United Church of Christ. Her husband ranches near Highmore.

She led Sunday’s special congregation in a prayer of remembering, “and some repentance,” in recognition that all the interactions of the mission with the Lakota people weren’t positive, Munger said.

There mostly were white-haired, experienced people in the school-desk style pews. But there were young people, too. Including Anna Spencer, 3, and her brother, Tommy Spencer, 11 months, with their parents Jindra and Ted Spencer.

After collecting the offering, which will go toward taking care of the chapel, the congregation praised God first in English, then in Lakota, following along in the program prepared by Munger..

Kate Nelson, of the Oahe Chapel Preservation Society, gave a short gloss on the history of the building that served as a school for Lakota children as well as a chapel and a work shop.

A small closet near the pulpit is filled with hymnals, of Lutheran, Methodist and other traditions, for the special services held each summer by varied pastors.

“This is a sacred space,” Munger told the congregation, after hearing stories of people who had been baptized and married in the chapel. Long before Oahe Chapel, Arikaras and Lakota people lived in this space, she said.

Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, was a day of remembering for Oahe Chapel and its people and everyone connected to the region’s history, Munger said. But it also was a day for “re-membering,” she said.

“Of literally bringing members back together.”


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