RURAL DUNN COUNTY – Dave Nodland picked up the charred remains of a single book of hymns and sighed softly. The pages were charred around the edges, but you could still make out the notes that many had belted in glorious song throughout the years.
By Bryan Gallegos
Editor’s Note: Please see full issue of June 17th paper, to see full article with sidebar and additional photos.
It was one of the few things that survived a massive fire that devoured the historical 100-year-old Vang Lutheran Church on Monday evening.
In a rare act of nature, lightning appeared to have struck the steeple of the church that has been a staple in the rolling hills since 1916. Soon after, the early evening air was filled with billowing flames that could be seen from miles and heavy black smoke that engulfed the building.
According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, the odds of lightning striking a building are 200- to-1.
“That building has been there for 100 years. You have to wonder how many lightning storms it has been through,” said Joey Bogers, the fire chief for the Halliday Volunteer Fire Department and the incident commander at the scene.
One too many.
Nobody was injured in the fire. But much of the church’s rich history died in the flames.
“You feel for all the generations who have sweat equity in the church,” Nodland said. “I feel kind of empty because their legacy is gone.”
Nodland scanned the area where the magnificent monument once stood, now reduced to a pile of ashes, melted metal, charred pillars and mashed mortar. Wisps of smoke could be seen coming from the black rubble, and orange embers of burning wood crackled among the mess.
He bit his lower lip and looked away, toward the Vang Lutheran cemetery across the road where generations of congregation members and several of his own family are buried, as if to seek a moment of serenity from the devastation.
The cemetery is lush and green, well cared for with trees waving in the slight breeze and providing shade. In a corner sits the bell from the steeple, in its new temporary home until parishioners can decide what to do with it.
His memories of the church, having been long dormant in the back of his mind, started gushing out. He was baptized at the church. And made his Confirmation in the little church on the prairie. He attended weddings and funerals, the last in 2012 when they buried his dad.
“I remember going to church and sitting with all my cousins. I was six years old,” Nodland recalled, a smile slowly stretched across his face. “It was great, all of us sitting in one pew.”
The church – with its steeple rising high into the heavens and the tiny nave with 18 pews a haven for worshippers – had been a foundation for the congregation that hovered around 50 or so members but had dipped into the teens before church officials ended regular Sunday services in 2010.
Now, only the church foundation and chimney remain in defiant silence, surrounded by the results of nature’s handiwork.
Six fire trucks and fire fighters – 30 strong – from Halliday, and West Dunn’s Killdeer and Dunn Center fire halls responded to the blaze about 7:45 p.m., shortly after lightning struck the church. It was a losing battle, Bogers said. The century-old wood seemed to explode as the blaze raced toward its ultimate destruction. In less than two hours, history-rich rural church was history.
“When we got there, it was just the steeple burning. But within 10 or 15 minutes of when we arrived, we just backed away,” Bogers said. “For as dried up as the wood was, it didn’t take long.”
After about 30 minutes of “shooting water and the flames getting bigger,” the outcome was inevitable, Nodland said. He and other parishioners told firefighters just to let the church burn.
“Our mission was then was to maintain the perimeter,” Bogers said.
Trevor Hauck, who lives two miles from the Vang Church, was the first to see the fire, after a storm rolled through the area. It was about 7 p.m. when the rumbling started.
“I was home working in my shop when I heard a loud lighting strike. When I heard it, I figured something got hit,” Hauck said.
He walked out of his shop and saw smoke. He climbed up a hill and saw the church’s steeple on fire. Hauck immediately alerted authorities and church officials about the fire as he made his way to the scene.
A six-year veteran fireman, Hauck assessed the situation when he arrived on the scene. He decided to try and save items in the church and called his father to bring his pickup to the scene. By this time, Nodland arrived and a short time later Luke Rohde joined. Together, they worked to save valuable memorabilia.
About 25 items – pictures, baptismal fountain and various communion items – were saved.
“I wanted to save the pulpit with a passion, but the only door available was too narrow to get it out,” Hauck said.
But the fire from above burned too quickly.
News of the blaze spread like wildfire among the congregation. A long line of cars lined the hilly road leading to the church and watched helplessly as their place of worship went up in smoke.
There were tears, many tears that night.
The scene was no better in the morning light the next day. Several people made the trek to the place where they practiced their faith and embraced their Lord’s glory.
“I can’t believe this has happened. I feel like I lost a member of my family,” said a congregation member, who visited the site Tuesday afternoon but did not want to be identified. “We haven’t had a lot of activities here over past few years, but there are a lot of memories in this place.”
The church building opened in 1916 about 13 miles southeast of Dunn Center. It took the congregation eight years of planning before it was finally constructed of wood and rock by the hands of volunteers on top of a hill next to what is now the narrow one-lane 12th Street.
When the church started, most of the parishioners were Norwegian and services were conducted in their native tongue. It wasn’t until 1920 that services for parishioners were recited in English. Although Sunday services were halted years ago, people still used the old country church for weddings and other get-togethers.
Now there will be no more services.
Some say the lightning strike may have been an act of God. Not one of vengeance, but rather, one of cleansing.
“God made the decision for us about what to do with the church,” said Nodland.