The tiny churchlike building in Cold Spring, Minnesota, is called the Grasshopper Chapel, but that isn’t its real name. When first built in 1877, it was Maria Hilf, which is German for “Mary’s Help.” Even though it’s now officially Assumption Chapel, it’s still best known by its odd nickname.
Why is it called the Grasshopper Chapel? Because it was built in honor of our Blessed Mother and in petition to her for relief from hordes of crop-devouring grasshoppers that devastated the farmlands in Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest for five consecutive summers.
The plague of grasshoppers started in the middle of June 1873 when swarms of them left the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Farmers in Minnesota, like farmers in other parts of the Midwest, watched as a foreboding dark cloud stretched across the western sky and moved toward them. It resembled a thunderstorm, but they knew it was a different kind of storm heading their way. The cloud was a living thing, rather than a moisture-laden air mass. It was made up of millions of hungry and destructive locusts.
Locusts and grasshoppers are actually the same insect. When they are few in number and not swarming, they are called grasshoppers, but when they swarm into huge masses, they become known as locusts.
By the time the storm of locusts passed through the region, what had been teaming fields of waist-high grass, wheat, and other crops were nothing more than ground-level stubble. The locusts ate everything and anything in addition to field crops: fruit trees, wooden fork handles and farm implements, and even items of clothing. Some records claim they voraciously ate the clothes off the backs of farmers.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, in her book On the Banks of Plum Creek, says they were so prevalent that farmers couldn’t even keep them out of the milk pail while milking their cows.
The locusts that devoured farm after farm left behind not only destruction but also future destruction — their eggs. Deposited in the soil, they would remain dormant until the next year’s crop season was well underway. Then the eggs would hatch and hundreds of thousands of baby locusts would churn their way across the farmlands, destroying the crops just as their predecessors had done the year before.
Though the newly hatched and hungry locusts couldn’t fly, they marched their way through farms and fields until their wings developed. Then they would take to the air and buzz away from the area, but only after they had laid their eggs, thus repeating the cycle the next year.
A losing battle
Farmers fought the insects, but to no avail. They tried beating the insects with rags and towels, shovels and hoes, and anything else they thought might kill the relentless insects. Plumes of gray smoke rose over the prairie as some farmers burned their crops, hoping to kill the grasshoppers or at the least thwart their advance.
Others coated sheets of metal with tar and dragged them tar-side down through the locust-covered fields. They hoped the insects would stick to the tar, which they did, and then the farmers incinerated them. The farmers couldn’t snag enough of the grasshoppers to make a difference, though. They dug trenches and burned tar in them, hoping the smoke would drive away the hoppers. Nothing worked.
Turning to prayer
After four years of devastating crop losses, Minnesota Gov. John S. Pillsbury proclaimed April 26, 1877, a day of prayer throughout the state to ask for God’s intervention to stop the grasshoppers. That night the weather became cool, and it rained. Then the rain turned to snow. The people hoped the freezing cold would stop the locusts, but when the storm was over, they were as plentiful as ever.
In May 1877, Fr. Leo Winter, a newly ordained Benedictine priest, was assigned to St. James Parish in Jacobs Prairie, Minnesota, and to St. Nicholas Parish about eight miles away. Fr. Winter encouraged his parishioners to continue their prayers; he said they should pray especially to the Blessed Mother to intercede for them to end the grasshopper plague.
In addition to their prayers, the parishioners decided to build a chapel “to honor the Mother of God, to take refuge in her as their intercessor, and be freed from the ravages of the grasshopper plague.” Two farmers donated a total of 7 acres of land, and construction of the chapel was started on July 16, 1877.
The wooden chapel took just short of a month to build. It was 16 feet by 26 feet and cost $865. The day after completion, Aug. 15, 1877, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Fr. Winter consecrated the altar and celebrated the first Mass there.
After that first Mass, the parishioners promised to offer Masses of thanksgiving every Saturday thereafter. According to local legend, by the time the second Mass was offered, not one grasshopper could be found in the area around Cold Spring. In 1878 the locusts didn’t return, and there hasn’t been a serious grasshopper invasion in the Midwest since.
In 1894, however, a tornado roared through the Cold Spring area. It picked up the little wooden chapel and whirled it into a grove of trees. The building and everything in it was destroyed, except for the statue of the Virgin Mary. It alone survived the twister.
The current chapel
A new chapel was built in 1951 on the site of Maria Hilf and was dedicated on Oct. 7 of that year. The chapel is about the same size of the original, but it is made of granite blocks from local quarries. Officially named Assumption Chapel, it still commemorates the end of the devastating grasshopper plagues, and it still honors Mary, the Mother of God.
The chapel, in a peaceful and cool setting surrounded by trees on Chapel Hill, is open to the public most days. Above the chapel’s doors is an arc-shaped stone inlaid with the words Assumpta Est Marie (Mary has been taken up), referring to the name given to the reconstructed chapel.
The Blessed Mother is depicted as standing on a cloud, and at her feet, bowing in submission, are two kneeling grasshoppers. It serves as a reminder of the destructive locusts in the 1870s and the Blessed Mother’s power over them.
Inside the chapel there is an altar, but there are no pews, as Mass is no longer celebrated in the building. The interior is dark when the chapel is unoccupied, but it lights up automatically when someone enters. The interior walls are made from polished agate and carnelian granite. On the wall behind the altar is a statue of the Blessed Mother holding the Baby Jesus. There are several stained glass windows, and on the walls there are prayers to and about Mary.
Behind the chapel is an outdoor altar where Mass is celebrated on various holy days. The primary celebration, of course, is on Aug. 15 each year on the feast of Mary’s assumption into heaven. Since 1990, for nine consecutive weeks in May and June, Mass is celebrated on Thursday evenings as a novena for the intention of a safe planting season and a good harvest. Surrounding parishes take turns celebrating the Mass.
The Stations of the Cross at the chapel are unique. Each is a small outdoor alcove made from locally mined granite. The 14 stations are situated along a shady footpath adjacent to the chapel and overlook the town of Cold Spring.
Each station has a roof of white granite that protects its polished granite interior from the weather. In the center of each station is an unpolished slab of granite with a simple engraved drawing and a one- or two-word caption, such as “First Fall,” and “Holy Women” to depict that station’s event.
The chapel stands as a reminder to all of the devastating locusts, the power of prayer, and the power of the Blessed Virgin Mary — and as a reminder, too, that there has not been a significant grasshopper plague in Minnesota or the Midwest since 1877.
If you go:
Assumption Chapel is located in Cold Spring, Minnesota, off state Highway 23 at 22912 Chapel Hill Road.