The National Historic Landmark is baptized in community spirit
Story by REBECCA SEDLAK • Photos by ALEX PAJUNAS
The century-old Deep River Lutheran Church stands as a reminder of an earlier time.
With porch steps four feet from the asphalt, the 18-foot-tall National Historic Landmark sits expectantly on the edge of a winding country road in the rural village of Deep River, Washington, eight miles from Naselle. Its simple Gothic Revival architecture and fresh coat of white paint recall the Finnish pioneers who built it.
The pristine-looking spectacle wouldn’t be possible without the love, dedication and care of community members. The church underwent renovations in 2012.
“It has stood through everything,” said Eva Malerich, whose family has helped preserve the church since the 1930s.
Deep River resident Mark Erickson spearheaded the recent project to renovate the church. “All winter I came by here on my walks. Eva gave me the keys, and I’d go inside – I figured I’d get out of the rain and say my prayers at the same time,” Erickson said. “And I just kept looking at the building, and the paint was looking really bad.”
The renovation work began at the end of June and into early July. Erickson and Richard Kandoll spent seven days scraping paint off by hand and powerwashing in repetitive cycles. “This thing got a thorough washing and scrubbing,” Erickson said.
After wrapping windows and doors in tape and plastic, they spent four days applying coat after coat of white paint on the dry, old wood siding and peach paint on the trim.
Then there was the roof work.
“There was moss over an inch thick on the steeple,” Erickson said. After powerwashing, they applied an oil-based paint and weaved strips of copper between shingles on each roof tier to prevent water leaks.
A landmark from long ago
The Deep River Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church was built at the turn of the last century. The congregation was active in 1894, meeting in various community members’ homes. Construction began in 1898 and finished in 1902. It was the first organized Evangelical Lutheran Church in the area.
“Deep River was a bustling community,” Malerich said. “It had two general stores, a hotel, a movie theater and a pool hall – Pentti’s Westend Pool Hall.” There was also a school, a dance hall, daily boat service to Astoria and a logging railroad.
Finnish pioneers settled in Deep River and neighboring Naselle in the late 1800s because homesteading provided families with acres full of timber. Deep River’s inlet tides from the Columbia River set it up as a main transportation artery for the timber industry, and jobs were plentiful.
About a mile from the river and down the road from the Deep River Cemetery stood the church, served by the same minister of the Astoria Lutheran Church. It was a focal point of the pioneer community. “Rarely was there an empty spot on Sundays,” Malerich said. With no established roads in the area, people would walk to church, some coming as far as the eight miles from Naselle.
The church was used regularly until the 1930s, when the congregation gradually decreased. Roads allowed logging trucks to replace water transportation, and Naselle became the center of commerce. The two congregations combined in Naselle, and the Deep River church was only used for funeral and Christmas services.
Eventually the Deep River church was deeded to the Deep River Cemetery Association. Malerich’s Aunt Martha Bakkila Hess, a member of the association, took charge of upkeeping the church. Hess died in 1985, and though she left money for the church, she was worried about its preservation. “She said, ‘Now nobody will take care of the church,’” Malerich said. “And I said, ‘Don’t worry, Sister, I’ll take care of the church.’”
A labor of love
Malerich has committed to keep that promise.
The church has gone through many renovations. The roof was replaced in the 1950s, in 1987 and in 2004. The leaning steeple has been corrected, a new foundation laid, the chimney cleared of bird nests, the windows reglazed and the wood undergone countless coats of paint.
“It’s a big job to keep it up,” Malerich said. “Every once in a while when we’ve needed something, someone has come through. But most of our fundraising has been done the old-fashioned way: one dollar at a time.”
The church is usually open for viewing during the Finnish-American Folk Festival in late July. Donations for the continued upkeep of the church are also accepted at the Naselle Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Fundraisers for the recent renovation started in April, and the project raised more than $4,000. “It wasn’t done with a grant; it was done with local people caring,” Malerich said. “All the money we spent came from the community.”
Though the outside has faced wear and tear, the interior is almost untouched by time. Finnish and American flags stand on either side of the altar, over which hangs a 1904 oil painting of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha. The white and blue wineglass pulpit rises above the original wooden pews on the left, and the still-in-tune piano rests on the right of the church.
But the work is never finished. The organ has deteriorated, the window sills need to be replaced and some shingles on the roof have rotted.
“We have a lot of projects,” Malerich said. “If I live long enough, maybe I can do it.”