LIKE Chartres Cathedral rising from the French plain, New Sweden Lutheran Church dominates the furrowed and fallow fields, a patchwork of taupe, green, and gray, that surround it for unencumbered miles of the central Texas prairie. Though the stark white edifice, with its 100-foot, copper-clad belfry, has watched over the neighboring farms for only 65 years, New Sweden Lutheran stands as a monument to the hardy and industrious Swedes who first cleared the stubborn mesquite from what would be their fields of corn and cotton more than 120 years ago.
Not a town, not even a village, and several miles of winding country road from the busy highway that links Austin and Houston, New Sweden today remains an active congregation, many of whose members are descendants of the Andersons and Swensons, Olsons and Sellstroms, who founded their church as the literal and figurative center of their rural Texas lives.
These days that pastoral scene includes a young man rappelling from the dominant steeple. In conjunction with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Swedish immigrants to Texas - and the 350th anniversary of the first Swedes in America - New Sweden is giving its church a refurbished steeple and a fresh coat of paint. The work is being done by a father-and-son team of steeplejacks who leave their native Minnesota each winter to ferret out work in the warmer climes of Southern states.
Don Kutz and his son Scott depart from the snowy north with a motor home laden with ladders, pulleys, planks, and hundreds of feet of hemp rope, and return in May with tales of steeple repair across the South: during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and the refurbishing of antebellum spires and domes in Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss.
``In Vicksburg we replaced lead on the courthouse roof that had been removed to make bullets during the Civil War,'' says Mr. Kutz. ``The newspapers had a lot of fun with that, saying the Yankees had returned to put it back on.''
The Kutzes rarely start out with a job in mind, but rather find them along the road. While at a Texas cafeteria, Don Kutz mentioned in a conversation with some locals that he was a steeplejack, and one of them said, ``You have to see the steeple at New Sweden.'' A job was born, as were a number of new friendships.
Already the Kutzes have been invited to a church covered-dish supper, and have found a pecan pie or two on the motor-home step, left by appreciative members of New Sweden church.
``That church has meant a lot to this community,'' says Dorothy Lundgren, whose grandparents, among the first settlers here, held services in their home before a three-windowed church was built in 1876. Though the present structure, completed in 1923, is much grander, ``It wasn't wealth that built it,'' she says, ``just hardworking people.''
Today Mrs. Lundgren, who was married in the church, can watch the spire for miles as she returns from shopping in the nearby town of Elgin. Spotting the familiar sight far across the fields from the front step of the home she shares with her son and his family, she says, ``I don't guess there's any church that's been more photographed than that one'' - and is forgiven the extravagance.
New Sweden was spiritual home to as many as 423 members before World War II, which exposed the farmers' sons to another world and sealed the fate of rural America. Today the church claims about 170 members, and a pastor who shares his time with another congregation of largely Swedish ancestry in nearby Lund.
Yet while the numbers may be smaller, and the surrounding farms fewer, the church retains its role in the New Sweden community. To celebrate this year's anniversaries the church held a traditional Julotta, or early Christmas morning mass, completely in Swedish. Though it was held at 6 o'clock, more than 200 people attended.
``Why did all those people come out so early on Christmas morning?'' asks Pastor Alfred Hoerig. ``Alex Haley said it pretty well: roots. There was something meaningful about celebrating the faith of their ancestors.''
Descendants of New Sweden's founders sometimes find their ties to their church so strong that they maintain their membership after moving to distant homes as far away as Michigan and California. In a few cases, according to Pastor Hoerig, they have moved back to the stark ``New Sweden prairie'' so they might be buried in the church's cemetery.
``There's a real sense of belonging that never dies,'' he says. ``It's a tie to their ancestors that is still very much a part of their lives.''