NOME, N.D.-The last pastor to serve at the former Zion Lutheran Church in Nome said he and former members are glad white supremacist Craig Cobb won't be living in the building after all.
The 108-year-old church in rural Barnes County burned to the ground in the middle of the afternoon on Wednesday, March 22, the same day a story on the church and its possible new owner was featured on The Forum's front page.
The Rev. Bradley Edin presides over several Lutheran congregations in the area and served at Zion for 15 years before it closed in the summer of 2012.
"Everyone is relieved that this building that meant so much is not going to be used by him," Edin said, referring to Cobb.
But Cobb, who believes the fire was intentionally set, said he's not necessarily done with the town of about 60 people 70 miles southwest of Fargo.
If an arsonist turns himself or herself in, Cobb said he will give up his efforts to remain in Nome and will continue living in Sherwood, N.D., about 50 miles northwest of Minot.
If not, he'll press on.
"If they want to keep pushing I just may very well retain the lot and build a building there and still make The President Donald J. Trump Creativity Church of Rome, not Nome. That's not a misprint," said Cobb, who has previously tried to establish white supremacist enclaves in two other North Dakota towns, including Leith, southwest of Bismarck.
"I'm really, really interested in getting even with people," he added.
'Like a funeral'
The Zion church building was built in 1908; one of a foursome of churches in Nome and nearby Fingal, N.D., according to "History of the Zion Lutheran Church," published in 1981 and on file at North Dakota State University Archives.
The Rev. H.O. Nordby, who came to America in 1868 from Norway, was Zion's first pastor.
Confirmation classes at Zion were conducted in both Norwegian and English until 1922, when the Norwegian language in class was discontinued.
To outfit the church, the "Ladies Aid" organization purchased pews at a cost of $200 and a new organ for $70. A furnace was installed in 1918, followed by electric fixtures the year after.
Later, the school in Nome built a barn so those attending services in Zion "could keep their horses there."
According to Edin, Zion celebrated its 100th anniversary on June 18, 2006.
But as the building aged and membership declined, it became clear the congregation wouldn't last. The congregation, described by Edin as "tightly connected and pragmatic," decided it would be "poor stewardship" to put money into something that may only be around a few more years.
Zion's final service was on June 24, 2012, and the contents of the building were sold at auction a few weeks later.
"It was like a funeral for me, personally," Edin said.
Jerome Jankowski, who lives next door, said the church was a landmark in Nome.
"It's a shame," he said.
Zion's altar cross, communion ware, Bible and altar book are stored in the sanctuary at St. Petri Lutheran Church, a few miles southwest of Nome, as a remembrance.
After Zion closed, most church members didn't hesitate to join the St. Petri parish.
"They were small, but were always fully aware that a church is far more than a building," Edin said.
Jankowski was a member of Zion for 14 years.
"It's sad when you look out there," he said.
According to the Barnes County Recorder's office, Cobb's name is listed on a recent deed as an owner of the property at 295 3rd Ave. in Nome. However, the name of a previous owner is also listed, so it's unclear whether Cobb owns it outright.
Jankowski said last week there were rumors circulating about some people wanting to burn the church so they wouldn't have to deal with Cobb, but that it might have been an offhand comment.
The state fire marshal's office is still investigating the cause of the fire, which Cobb has said he believes is "100 percent arson." He said m in an interview late last week that there was no insurance on the building in Nome and that he did not start the fire.
Cobb is involved in the Creativity Movement, a nontheistic religion that believes in the superiority of white people.
He said he thinks "homegrown arsonists" from Nome are responsible for the fire, not "out-of-town anarchists."
His message to the people of Nome was to turn over the arsonist "before something really bad might happen," though he said he had no knowledge of any revenge efforts.
Calls requesting information about the investigation to the State Fire Marshal's office and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division in St. Paul were not returned Monday, March 27.
Barnes County Sheriff Randy McClaflin said he hasn't heard of any possible suspects and that those investigating agencies haven't called him for help.