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Fire destroys rural Drayton church

DRAYTON, N.D. -- When Roger Anderson got a call from church president and sister Kris Heine late Sunday night, he knew immediately it was bad. He only had to look out his window to see the Skjeberg Lutheran Church was fully on fire. Anderson, a f...

Fire destroyed the Skjeberg Lutheran Church in rural Drayton, N.D., on Sunday night. Matt Kasprowicz/Special to the Herald
Fire destroyed the Skjeberg Lutheran Church in rural Drayton, N.D., on Sunday night. Matt Kasprowicz/Special to the Herald

DRAYTON, N.D. -- When Roger Anderson got a call from church president and sister Kris Heine late Sunday night, he knew immediately it was bad.

He only had to look out his window to see the Skjeberg Lutheran Church was fully on fire. Anderson, a fourth-generation member of the congregation, lives on a farm about 2½ miles south of the church.

“It was one of the worst sights I’ve ever seen,” Anderson said. “You definitely could see the outline of the church. It was all on fire.”

His neighbor 2 miles north of the church, Gary Jenson, saw it, too. He was the first person to notice the glow through the haze of the storm and drove through the 6-inch-deep snow to check it out.

By the time he arrived at the rural Minnesota church, located about 3 miles east and a 1½ miles north of Drayton, he said the steeple already had fallen and the rest of the church was engulfed in flames.

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Volunteer firefighters from Drayton, along with Minnesota crews from Kennedy, Hallock and Stephen all responded, but there was little they could do to save the church that was built by Norwegian settlers in 1883.

Volunteer Drayton Fire Chief Jordan Grundstrom said he got the call at 9:41 p.m., but the fire was shooting through the roof when crews arrived 12 minutes later. The storm made travel extremely difficult, he said, doubling the usual response time.

“Not that we would have been able to save it, but it definitely hindered our capability to fight it,” he said. “We endured some rain and a little bit of sleet, but the wind was probably the worst factor. It was a wind-pushed fire. The winds were 20 to 25 mph, and that helped fuel the fire and make it spread that much quicker.”

The cause of the fire is unknown, but Grundstrom said many speculate lightning may have been the source.

“It sure seems like a possibility,” Grundstrom said. “We were in the middle of a terrible thunder and lightning storm that lasted for a very long time.”

Grundstrom said near-blizzard conditions also caused some firefighters driving in personal vehicles to slide into the ditch enroute to the scene, but no one was injured.

The fire destroyed the church, but the congregation with roughly 100 members is trying to stay positive.

“Skjeberg has been around so long, it’s the heart and the soul of the community,” Anderson said. “We just had church on Sunday, and the church was full. … Everyone is saying the people are the church, and they all want to continue it.”

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Heine, who also serves as the main organist for the church, said three neighbor churches already offered to open their doors for services.

“Everybody is just devastated but hopeful,” Heine said. “The whole community is behind us. Everybody is sending us their love, support and encouragement.”

Heine said kind words and prayers also have traveled all the way from Norway. Her fellow organist at a sister church in Skjeberg, Norway, reached out via Facebook.

Members of both churches have traveled back and forth through the years, Heine said.

“It’s such a supportive, welcoming church. During the sharing of the peace it takes about a minute because everybody is hugging each other,” Heine said. “You’re not a stranger when you come here because everyone welcomes you.”

Heine said the church has insurance, but some things will be impossible to replace such as the antique, handmade altar cloth that came from Norway and the ornate wooden altar with its painting of Jesus.

Heine said the congregation will meet Wednesday to discuss what to do next.

People who want to send donations to the church, may send them to Skjeberg Lutheran Church, c/o Koda Bank, Box 369, Drayton, ND 58225.

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Church president Kris Heine was driving by the historic church recently when she stopped to take this scenic picture.
Church president Kris Heine was driving by the historic church recently when she stopped to take this scenic picture.

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