A Norwegian Catholic?

“How,” my friend and classmate Carla recently asked “can you be both Norwegian and Catholic?”

A reasonable question. We grew up in Hettinger, North Dakota, where the Germans were Catholic and the Norwegians were Lutheran. For the most part. Catholics were named Schmidt and Nagel and Slater and Seifert and Schmaltz. Lutherans were named Braaten and Strand and Nordahl and Lundahl and Austad. There were a few anomalies. The Seversons were Catholic. The Wolfs were Lutheran. But for the most part, in Hettinger, at least, religion followed nationality. And then there were the Fuglies.

Fuglie is an Americanized version of Fuglen, which in Norwegian translates literally as “the bird,” but familiarly it was the name of the farm where my ancestors lived, thus we always have believed Fuglen meant “bird home” or “place where the birds lived.” It sounds like a place where I would have liked to have grown up. Today, Fuglen is the name of a pretty famous high end café, cocktail bar and curio shop in Oslo, with a branch store in Tokyo. Really.

The Fuglen family farm was, (and I think still is) in the Valdres region of south Norway, between Bergen and Lillehammer. Some of my distant cousins have been there. I have not. But I digress.

The Fuglies were indeed Norwegian, and Lutheran, when they came here in the late 1870’s. My Grandfather, Ole Dekko Fuglie, married a nice Catholic girl named Sadie Wurm, whose mother was Kate Finnegan. My great-grandmother Kate was born in1852, I believe in Ireland, but I am not sure. And here is the story of how I became Catholic, and remain so to this day (once a Catholic, always a Catholic, my dad used to say). Now, of course, another truth comes out: I am not 100 per cent Norwegian. But more on that later.

Irish Kate, we all assume, was Catholic. Catholic Kate married Konrad Wurm (he was born in Bohemia, which was a predominantly Catholic country in the 19th century, I think, so he may have been Catholic as well) and they had a couple of daughters, among them Sadie, my grandmother, who grew up Catholic and also half Irish, half Bohemian, an interesting combination. I only knew her as a white-haired grandmother, but a spunky one, short, a little stocky, full of life, a little bit of a devilish twinkle in her blue eyes, and smart. Very, very smart. She died while I was in high school. I knew her well. I liked her a lot.

Sadie grew up Catholic in St. Paul, where her father, Konrad, owned a small, 400-barrel brewery, and a tavern in which he sold his beer. She enjoyed beer until the day she died. As did her children, including her youngest, my father. And his children. But Sadie married a Norwegian Lutheran named Ole Fuglie in 1914. That created a problem. In those days, that was called a “mixed marriage.” There were two conditions put on Sadie by her priest in order to have the church recognize her marriage:

  • She had to be married by a priest, but could not be married at a Catholic mass, or even in a Catholic church. They had to be married in the sacristy, in a quiet ceremony with only a pair of witnesses looking on.
  • They had to agree to raise their children as Catholics.

And so they were married, and they raised their four children as Catholics. And Sadie hoped against hope that they would all marry Catholics to avoid the strain the religious difference put on her own marriage. Alas it was not to be. Their oldest son, Carlyle James, my namesake, was killed in World War II and never married. Their two daughters and my dad all married Lutherans. Same deal.

My parents were married in a quiet ceremony in 1946, not long after my dad came home from the war, by a priest, in the sacristy of the Catholic Church in Devils Lake. Another mixed marriage. My mother had been born, baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church and, while she agreed to the same conditions my grandfather had, she remained firmly committed to her Lutheran faith. My mother was only half Norwegian. Her mother, my maternal grandmother, was Sophia Aaberg, a good Norwegian woman, and her father was Peter Boehmer, a second generation German by way of Canada.  Both Lutherans. But my mom agreed to raise her children as Catholics. And we were. And that should be the end of the story. But it isn’t. There are a number of religious sidelights in my family story.

I don’t remember much about the first six years of my life (or, my wife says, the last six either) but I remember this: Religion was a problem. There were arguments. I don’t remember the gist of them, but there were arguments. And then, one summer morning in the early 1950’s, when I was probably 5 or 6 or 7,  my mom packed a couple of suitcases, carried them, with my sister and I walking alongside her, to the bus depot, and we boarded the bus for Devils Lake. We were leaving my dad. We were a ways down the road when my dad, in a 1950 Oldsmobile, pulled up alongside the bus honking his horn and waving his arms frantically and forced the bus over to the side of the road. Then he stormed onto the bus, grabbed us kids by the arms and dragged us off, put us in the car, came back and grabbed the suitcases and my mother, put them in the car and took us home. Not long after that, my mom began taking instructions to become a Catholic. Pretty much happily ever after, except that all of a sudden my sister and I began to be joined by numerous baby brothers and sisters—five more in all. They were okay, I guess, but we sure got a lot fewer presents for Christmas over the years than we did when there were just two of us.

But we were a happy Catholic family, and to this day, when I run into some of the people of my parents’ generation, the comment I hear most often is “Oh, I have such fond memories of watching all those Fuglie kids walk down the aisle into church every Sunday morning.”

A sad thing happened late in my parents’ lives. Us kids were grown and gone from home, and a new priest arrived in Hettinger. For some reason, my dad and the priest did not hit it off. He had been great friends with my childhood priest, even to the point of inviting him into  the weekly poker games, but this one was different. Then my dad died unexpectedly at a very young age, 62. We were pretty sure the sermon was not going to be pretty at the funeral, so we asked the priest not to preach a sermon. He agreed. We instead read a nice little tribute us seven kids put together the night before the funeral. After the funeral, when us kids had all gone back to our homes, unlike most small town priests, he never came to visit my mother, to comfort her and pray with her.

And so I wasn’t surprised when, a few months after the funeral, my mother said to me “I’m thinking about going back to the Lutheran church. They have a nice young preacher there, and he came to see me after dad died because some of my friends, I think, told him I needed some company.”

I said fine. She did, and she was happy, going to church every Sunday with the Lutheran friends she had made in her small town over the years. Six or seven years went by. And then one day she called me and said she had been thinking, and she didn’t want to be buried in a different church than Dad, and she was thinking about going back to the Catholic church.

“Did you get a new priest down there, Mom?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said almost breathlessly, “and he’s such a nice young man, and so friendly, and I really like him.”

“Go for it, Mom,” I replied.

And she did. And many years later she was buried in the same church as my dad, and now they’re together, literally, happily ever after.

And that, Carla, is my story. Thanks for asking. I enjoyed remembering all that.

8 thoughts on “A Norwegian Catholic?

  1. Didn’t finish, got cut off.

    My brother married a Catholic girl from just south of Hettinger, Schaefbauer of
    Herried, SD. A mixed marriage.

    Andy and Lillian Silbernagle were a mixed marriage. Lillian’s dad was a lay(?)
    Lutheran minister.

    Would you tell us how you became a Democrat in a red State? Ha……Marv

    I agree with enviromental views.


  2. “Us kids” Jim?!? Two times it’s “us kids”? Shoulda been “We,” Jim….:-) But I really enjoyed reading this story! I never knew there had been dissension like that in your family.
    Isn’t it nice that she was able to go back and forth between religions and use either one as she needed them? Too bad we have wars fought over them – religions, I mean.


    1. Y’know, Carla, you’re mostly right, although I might be willing to debate the first usage. I’m an English major, and I know that rule, and its one of those that is grammatically correct but functionally uncomfortable, so for my part, I’ve consistently ignored it and written the way I talk, in a comfortable, conversational, but technically incorrect, style. So I’m claiming a style exemption, perfectly permissible in the world of unpublished manuscripts, or published manuscripts by great authors. Mine’s unpublished. We’ll be coming by your place in February. I’m willing to debate this rule over a glass of wine.


  3. A delightfully charming story, so well told. Thanks, Jim.
    (Reminded me of when I spent time with a Catholic girl at St. Catherine’s in Valley City in the 1960s … and lived in abject fear that my stern Lutheran pastor would hear that I had attended Mass with her. When I confessed this to him many, many years later, he laughed.)


  4. Great story Jim! You know Blake and I are a “mixed marriage”. Although he is a practicing Lutheran now. When he met my Grandma Nora for the first time she was about 90 years old and living in a nursing home. Her mind was good, her body not so much. Anyway she asked him about his religion. Blake said he was raised Catholic. She replyed “That’s okay, we can’t all be perfect!” 🙂


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