Two churches burn, one classified as arson

No one was injured, but two LCMS churches suffered major fire damages in the weeks before Easter.

  • Investigators say the early-morning fire April 4 at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Yankton, S.D., was set deliberately, but church officials have no idea fires-yankton.gifwhy.

    “A tornado you can understand,” St. John’s Pastor David Gunderson told the Argus Leader newspaper.  “This, you wonder why people would do it.”  Gunderson says he knows of no one who would have a grudge against the 500-family congregation.

    The fire was discovered about 3:20 a.m.  Some 65 firefighters from Yankton and nearby towns fought the blaze for seven hours, and had to return once when winds reignited it.

    Most of the damage is on the south end of the complex, so a lounge, offices, and work rooms are “pretty much [totaled],” according to Gunderson.  Collapsed ceilings, and smoke and water damage are “everywhere,” he said.

    Total damages are estimated at more than $2 million, most of which is expected to be covered by insurance.  Repairs — including the meticulous cleaning of a $300,000 pipe organ — may take six months or more to complete, as part of the complex will have to be rebuilt.

    Associate Pastor Steven Weispfennig, who has been at St. John’s — his first congregation — for only nine months, described the week or so after the fire as “an emotional rollercoaster,” as he experienced “shock and sadness at what we lost,” as well as “joy in seeing the congregation coming together and supporting and encouraging one another.”

    Perhaps as a symbol of the congregation’s resilience, its “eternity candle” continued to burn, even as firefighters were hosing down the building.  Located in the main worship area, hanging above the baptismal font, the candle’s flame has never gone out.

    That congregational resilience was evident within 24 hours of the disaster, when St. John’s held a Palm Sunday worship service with communion, new-member welcome, a children’s choir, and palm branches that were “miraculously preserved” in a church cooler.  All Holy Week and subsequent services were held at Mount Marty College, a Catholic institution two blocks south that has offered its auditorium to St. John’s “for as long as we need it,” according to Gunderson.

    “The community support has been overwhelming,” he said.  “Other churches have raised funds for us.  Everybody’s offered us a place for weddings.”  The church’s preschool and offices also have been relocated.

    In the midst of members’ shock and sadness, the congregation is “adapting,” said the pastor.  “Overall, we’re still in the business of sharing the Gospel with people.”  In fact, 19 St. John’s youth were confirmed on Sunday, April 19, at Mount Marty.

  • The east side of historic St. John’s Lutheran Church in rural Geneseo, Ill., east of Moline, has been “completely destroyed” by a March 31 fire that started in the electrical system of the church’s bafires-geneseo.giflcony, just above the narthex, according to Pastor Christopher T. Bushre.  The west side of the 137-year-old church still stands, but has extensive smoke and water damage.

    Bushre says the church will be rebuilt, but is not yet sure of the cost.  “We have excellent insurance, which will most likely cover all rebuilding costs,” he told Reporter via e-mail.

    The 330-member congregation met for Holy Week services at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Colona, Ill., about six miles northwest of St. John’s, and will continue to worship there until the fire-damaged church is rebuilt.

    St. John’s members “are, of course, saddened, but are looking to the future,” Bushre said.  “We had a building that was home to our families for generations, but we look to build a new building that will be home to our families for many future generations.”

    Bushre added that the disaster gave the congregation’s Easter celebration special meaning.

    “Not only did we celebrate our Lord Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection awaiting us on the last day, but also the resurrection of our church building, which we trust our Lord will guide us toward in the coming months,” he said.

    “What better time to begin rebuilding than the Easter season?  Christ has risen, and so shall we!”

  • Posted April 22, 2009

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