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David Luessen, Forum News Service, Published January 28 2014

Valley City church to rebuild after arson

VALLEY CITY, N.D. – In the early morning hours of Oct. 21, the Rev. Jolene Knudson-Hanse received a phone call: Her church was burning.

“I just kind of went into response mode, like when you get a call from the hospital in the middle of the night, you just go and you don’t really think about it,” she said. “It really didn’t hit me until a few hours later when we were sitting down and trying to figure out our next step – when we realized we won’t have a building. Then it really hits you, all the work that lies ahead and the sadness of losing that place of worship, and that’s a workplace for myself and our employees.”

On Sunday, the Faith Lutheran Church Council voted during its annual meeting to build a new church on the ground where the old one burned in downtown Valley City. The building sustained $2.5 million in damage from the fire, which investigators later ruled was arson set to cover evidence in a burglary. Three other church burglaries in Valley City before the fire are still being investigated.

Faith Lutheran Church Council President Tory Hart said church officials will meet with architecture firms to plan how to move forward. Hart did not expect the new building to be open for a year or longer, and Knudson-Hanse said construction might not begin until fall or spring 2015.

After the fire, the congregation began holding services at an empty space in a Valley City office building owned by congregation member Greg Burchill, who offered a cut-rate rent that will be paid for a year by the church’s insurance company. Knudson-Hanse said it was a new experience having neighbors, and the church shares the building with CP Rail, Nielson Insurance Agency and the Barnes County Sheriff’s Office.

“One thing that the people liked was that the sheriff’s office was right next door. After the fires and burglaries, it made people feel safe,” Knudson-Hanse said.

The church has a congregation of roughly 800 members, but the temporary location offers seating for only 170 people during services. Hart said the size of the worship hall is adequate but the fellowship hall can get crowded.

“The accommodations for our worship are good, but we’re used to a really large fellowship hall where we can gather, have coffee and meals together. That’s the big piece that’s tight and we’re dealing with it the best we can,” Hart said.

Fire and forgiveness

Hart said he watched the firefighters battle the blaze firsthand because he had left for work early that day, and he immediately knew it would be bad for the church.

“With all the activity going on around the building with the fire department, I was certain it (the damage) was going to be extensive,” he said. “I was hoping they could get it contained, and they did; they did a really good job of knocking the fire down.”

According to Barnes County District Court documents, two suspects, Nicole Ellen Lindermann, 18, of Kathryn, and Andrew Michael Miklas, 25, of Valley City, allegedly committed a burglary at the church hours earlier and later returned. Miklas is accused of setting the building on fire to destroy evidence of the crime.

Miklas faces preliminary and status hearings Tuesday, and Lindermann has a preliminary hearing Feb. 10 after various charges were filed in the arson in mid-January.

Hart said the fire has left the congregation anxious, but they recognize they now have the opportunity to build anew. Some of the church members’ suggestions for the new building include a more efficient heating system, no flat roof like the old building and fewer, if any, stairs. He added that the congregation has kept active and looked past the arson.

“I don’t think our congregation has dwelled on that for the most part,” he said. “We’re more focused on getting the building back and staying together and continuing with what Faith Lutheran Church has for ministries.”

Knudson-Hanse also said that amid the church’s regular education programs, Bible studies and other congregation activities, the crime has not been a focus at all, and she hoped the best for the suspects.

“I hope that they get help because they obviously are in a very dark place in their lives, and that’s been my prayer, that they get the help that they need to get out of this dark place,” she said.