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Charly Haley, Forum News Service, Published October 23 2013

Arson determined as cause of Valley City church fire

VALLEY CITY, N.D. – A mixture of feelings enveloped members of Faith Lutheran Church as they gathered Wednesday to pray.

“I think we basically felt like we had experienced a death,” church member Doreen Vangerud said.

She and other members of the congregation were gathered outside the burned Faith Lutheran Church building, which suffered more than $1 million in damage after a fire Monday morning.

Investigators determined Wednesday that arson was the cause of the fire.

“We all agreed that it was a set fire at the church,” said Valley City Fire Chief Gary Retterath, who worked with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and state fire marshals on the investigation.

Federal and state investigators and the Valley City Police Department will continue the investigation, Retterath said.

Valley City Police Chief Fred Thompson said Monday that authorities were looking into the possibility of the fire being related to a late-September string of church burglaries in Valley City, but it was “too early to tell.”

Thompson said Wednesday that he would not comment further until more information was available through investigation.

When Faith Lutheran’s church members gathered Wednesday, they were grieving but also forgiving.

“It doesn’t matter that it was arson instead of an accident that caused this fire … because God’s goal is peace,” the Rev. Jolene Knudson-Hanse told the congregation.

“Much work lies ahead for our congregation, but our fear and anger, we can leave at Jesus’ feet,” she said.

The congregation received an outpouring of help from the Valley City community and other churches, including a place to meet after singing and praying together outside the Faith Lutheran building Wednesday evening.

As about 300 members of Faith Lutheran’s 900-member congregation shared a meal in the basement of St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, Faith Lutheran Council President Tory Hart answered many of their questions.

Faith Lutheran Church is waiting to hear from its insurance company on the damage caused by the fire, Hart said. From there, church officials will decide whether to repair or rebuild the church.

Until then, the church will relocate to the former U.S. Department of Agriculture building in Valley City, starting Nov. 3, Hart said. That building was chosen from about 14 locations that were offered, and Faith Lutheran will probably be there for at least a year, he said.

Hart also explained to church members that they should not go near their church building.

“Our church is now part of a criminal investigation,” he said. “We will not be allowed into our church for a while.”

A few church members asked about specific parts of the building – the pews, art – and Hart explained to the best of his knowledge what would be salvageable and what was lost.

He said a firefighter saved the church’s altar book, and added that church records – which had been in a plywood cabinet in the office which sustained the most damage – were mostly unharmed.

As the church members together continued to process the news and plan for the future, there was hope.

“It’s like losing a member of your family,” said Deb Horner, whose son was married in Faith Lutheran Church the Saturday before the fire.

But Horner’s friend and fellow church member Paulette Everson added, “The devil is very afraid of us, our congregation,” and called the fire “a little setback.”

Both Horner and Everson said Faith Lutheran’s members are strong and will recover.

Donation funds for Faith Lutheran Church have been set up at Dacotah Bank and Bank Forward in Valley City.

Hart said other, non-monetary offers of help will be processed through the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America office in Fargo.

Sun reporter Charly Haley can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at chaley@jamestownsun.com