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Published May 13 2012

Out of the ashes: Town’s efforts, another congregation’s generosity resurrect Oriska church

ORISKA, N.D. - Even as the Zion Lutheran Church burned to the ground May 16, 2011, the congregation wasn’t ready to give up.

As smoke and flames swallowed the 108-year-old building, former Zion president Tom Utke heard them say it over and over again: “We’re going to rebuild.”

Almost one year later, a new church stands. On Mother’s Day, the new Zion Lutheran Church hosted a confirmation class of three eighth-graders – one whose family has been a member of the church for six generations.

At a time when small, country churches with dwindling memberships are folding, this town of 118 took a leap of faith. They built a new church, not only through their own efforts and donations, but also through the generosity of another church.

Fifty miles northeast of here, the members of Blanchard Lutheran Church had decided to close its doors. Bishop Bill Rindy of the ELCA’s Eastern North Dakota Synod contacted the congregation to see if they could help Zion, whose insurance would only pay for the shell of the building. Blanchard’s members responded with a generosity that surprised even Rindy.

Today, reminders of Blanchard Lutheran are everywhere. The light oak pews are from Blanchard, as is the altar. The collection plates, the baptismal font, the organ, the sound system and the cross atop the building are gifts from Blanchard. The appliances, dishes and the broom and dustpan for Zion’s yet-to-be-constructed fellowship hall – all Blanchard.

Rindy estimates it could have cost $100,000 to replace all those items with new fixtures.

“You could have had two tragic stories,” he says. “But it goes from lose-lose to win-win. You don’t see that all that often.”

Resurrection, not regret

True, the story of Oriska’s Lutheran church could have been one of regret over resurrection.

The day before the fire, church members thought they smelled smoke during their Sunday service, Utke says. They searched high and low, but nothing seemed remiss. Maybe the smoky smell came from someone burning leaves in the neighborhood, they figured.

The next day, children in the next-door schoolyard saw smoke pouring out of the church. Three fire departments responded, but the blaze – attributed to an electrical spark from old wiring – consumed the structure within hours.

Church members did sneak in to rescue church records and photos, but everything structurally was lost.

Well, almost. Officials had installed new double doors on the front of the old church the week before; those were saved. The church’s bell fell to the ground and, after a good polish, was good as new. Unfortunately, the blaze burned up the bell tower, which contained the signatures of Sunday school students who had scrambled up to the belfry to sign their names for generations.

Oriska Lutherans also lost their heart. “A lot of tears were shed. The bar/café is closed, so one of the places people get together is church. It keeps the community knitted together,” says Zion congregation member Beth Trader, whose husband’s ancestors helped found the church.

But even before the embers cooled, church officials were planning their next step. The Sunday service after the fire was held next door in the school gymnasium, and the congregation didn’t miss a service before the new church was built. Rindy recalls that the first sermon focused on the fact that a real church wasn’t the building itself, but the people in it.

Discussions brewed about what to do next. Church council members had recently poured money into the old building to replace items like the roof and steeple. Fortunately, that also prompted them to increase their insurance coverage, Utke says. The $175,000 insurance check would cover a new structure, but not much else.

“The congregation felt strongly that they didn’t want to go into debt, which is understandable because of what’s happening to the rural population,” says the Rev. Dan Faust, the retired pastor who drives from Valley City every Sunday to officiate at Zion’s service.

It was the congregation’s youngest members – its 23 Sunday school participants – who ultimately prompted them to rebuild.

“There’s so much grieving in our rural communities,” Rindy says. “Even when a school merges and they build a school that’s in the middle of nowhere and isn’t in anyone’s town. My sense is that the people want to hang on as long as they can. They know what they’re doing is important. They’ve received a legacy that they want to pass on to the children.”

One gave so another may live

A ground-breaking ceremony was held July 31, 2011.

People from all over stepped forward to volunteer labor, money and time. Local churches and former Oriska residents sent donations. The Trader family removed the charred remains. The owner of Fargo’s JDP Electric had been confirmed at Zion; he donated all of the electrical materials and installation. Pommerer Construction chipped in on the foundation and footings. Bitz Plumbing donated heating and plumbing. Mike Gille of Gille Construction provided building materials and contractor services.

The rebuilt Zion got rid of some of the headaches from the previous structure – such as non-handicap-accessible stairs and a flood-prone basement – and replaced it with new amenities like a balcony, floor heating, wider aisles and recessed lighting.

The building was far enough along to accommodate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services in December. Zion was officially dedicated Jan. 22, with 120 members from both Zion and Blanchard attending.

After seeing Blanchard’s fixtures in Zion’s church, one Blanchard member, Tim Garrett, said: “Now we know we did the right thing.”

Rindy called it a “powerful moment,” when Ken Beckman, Blanchard’s president, and Utke came forward for the laying of hands to re-dedicate the baptismal font and the altar.

A bit of Blanchard even graced the meal that followed. The Swedish meatballs served to the crowd were made from a recipe in the Blanchard church cookbook.

To this day, Rindy likens the relationship between the church that closed and the church that was reborn as that between an organ donor and an organ recipient. One gave, he says, so the other could live.

“For a little town like Oriska? This was such a huge gift,” Rindy says. “I think it honored the givers a second time. A whole new generation will hear the Gospel through their giving.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525