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Drayton church celebrates new building

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Marlys Nelson, organist at Skjeberg Lutheran, holds a candle with a photograph of the original church given to the congregation by the congregation of their sister church in Norway. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 6
Congregants gather in the new fellowship hall on the one year anniversary of a fire that destroyed the original church. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 6
Members of Skjeberg Lutheran near Drayton, N.D., gather on the one-year anniversary of the fire that destroyed the historic church. The new church is under construction and members are hoping to be worshipping there later this year. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald4 / 6
Brothers Knox, left, and Koll Jensen help Tom Britten ring the bell at Skjeberg Lutheran for the first time since a fire one year ago destroyed the original church. Britten was the last one to ring the bell at the former church. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald5 / 6
A year after the original Skjeberg Lutheran Church burned near Drayton a new church is under construction and will reopen later this year. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald6 / 6

DRAYTON, N.D. — The cling-clang of the Skjeberg Lutheran Church bell ringing across the prairie is music to the ears of its congregation.

Each pull of the rope connected to the bell of the new church signals the resurrection of the church from the ashes of a fire that destroyed the building a year ago this month. On March 3, Tom Britten, Skjeberg Lutheran Church usher, rang the bell for the first time since services the morning of March 4, 2018. That night, a lightning strike during a snowstorm started a fire that destroyed the building.

By the end of April, church council members voted to rebuild the church, located three miles east and one-half mile north of Drayton. The walls of the new church are up and the 118-year-old bell, recovered from the ruins, is in the bell tower. Inside the church, walls separate the sanctuary from the social hall. Restrooms have been framed.


Construction of the new church began in late October. Interior projects will be conducted in stages as funds become available, said Kris Heine, church council president.

"We're doing it step by step," Heine said. "It took 135 years to get everything we wanted in the other church."

The new church construction is being funded by insurance money from the old church, money the church had in reserves and donations from across the United States. The donations have varied in size from $10 given by a 95-year-old man who wrote a note telling the congregation they could buy a half of a Bible with the money, to an Ohio son of a prairie preacher who is giving the church $100 each month, Heine said.

"It's just wonderful how people have been supportive," she said.

Meanwhile, Skjeberg's "mother church" in Norway will hold a fundraiser for the rural Drayton church.

Other non-monetary donations have come from members of shuttered rural churches across northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota who have offered items from kitchen equipment to collection plates and pews.


For example, Pleasant Valley Lutheran Church, rural Park River, N.D., donated an altar, hymn board and communion rails to Skjeberg. Keith Kjelland, a pharmacist in Drayton, who as a child attended Pleasant Valley, refurbished the wooden hymn board that had been abandoned in the church after it closed several years ago.

"These are things you can't buy in a catalog," said Bernice Anderson, tenderly running her hand down the wooden board that hangs, temporarily, in the new church commons. "They're not things you buy that are laminated wood. These are the things that are going to make us feel home again, that give us roots."

If the items donated from other churches give the new Skjeberg roots, the congregation's faith in God is its rock.

"We're rising from the ashes. We're building again. We've built on solid ground, a strong foundation," Laura Hammond said during a service March 3 commemorating the old church and celebrating the construction progress on the new building. About 25 Skjeberg Lutheran Church members gathered in the new church commons for the service.

Church family

Tears welled in some members' eyes as they sang "Oh, That the Lord Would Guide My Way." That was the song on the page a charred hymnal book was opened to after the fire.

More tears flowed as Skjeberg members shared memories of the old church.

"I was married here. All three of our children were baptized here. My daughter was married here," said Marlys Anderson, a lifelong church member who lives a quarter-mile down the road.

"People care about the church. We care about each other. It's not just a building," Heine said.

Skjeberg Lutheran church members have a history of taking care of things such as shoveling sidewalks in the winter and mowing the grass in the summer because they feel a strong sense of ownership, she said.

"It's been passed down from generation to generation. Hopefully, it will be here in another 100 years," Heine said.

Donations can be sent to Skjeberg Lutheran Church, c/o Koda Bank, Box 369, Drayton, N.D., 58225.