DUNN CENTER — A lightning strike to its steeple set a 100-year-old church ablaze Monday evening in rural Dunn County.
The Vang Lutheran Church, which maintained a small congregation despite ending regular Sunday services in 2010, was destroyed by the fire.
“You just trust the Lord knows what’s best for the congregation,” said Dave Nodland, one of the church’s few remaining members.
The church opened in 1916 about 6 miles southeast of Dunn Center following eight years of planning and construction. The earliest parishioners were Norwegian immigrants who moved to the area from Renville County, Minn., and the church served generations of central Dunn County Lutheran families, former state Sen. George Nodland said.
“It was basically an icon to the county,” said Halliday Fire Chief Joey Bogers, who responded to the fire.
Dunn County Commission Chairman Reinhard Hauck — who was baptized there — said Tuesday the church only recently officially closed as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s Western North Dakota Synod.
Hauck and Dave Nodland said because of the building’s deterioration — it was badly damaged by hail a few years ago — families who were stakeholders in the church had started talking about its eventual fate.
“We were still struggling with that,” Dave Nodland said. “I guess the good Lord made the decision for us. … Nobody wanted to see it close because it was a landmark for generations.”
Around 30 firefighters responded to the fire after it was reported around 7:30 p.m., Bogers said, adding he could see the fire from three miles away.
Dave Nodland said he and other congregation members told firefighters to let the church burn after the blaze spread beyond the steeple and fire trucks began running out of water.
“It was at the point where you just couldn’t fight it,” he said.
The church burned to the ground within two hours, Bogers said.
“You think of all the lightning storms there have been in the last 100 years and finally one struck,” Dave Nodland said.
Denise Brew, the county’s emergency manager, called the church fire is “devastating” to locals.
“It’s that one church everybody in the county knew of,” she said. “It was the beacon of the county down there.”
George Nodland said he was baptized at the Vang Lutheran Church and has about 40 relatives buried in the church’s cemetery, which he said will continue to be maintained.
His grandfather was one of the church’s founders, and said services were held at the family’s home while the church was being constructed.
“It has quite a history,” he said.
Shortly before Memorial Day, George Nodland said he visited the church after tidying up his relative’s gravesites.
“I went into the church and looked at some stuff,” he said. “I made a comment to my wife, ‘Somebody should get that stuff out of there.’ It was getting old.”
A few items were spared, Dave Nodland said, including the baptismal fountain, and some pictures and communion items. However, the pews and the altar — which he said the congregation hoped to save — were completely lost in the fire.
George Nodland said he went through a range of emotions Tuesday as he learned more about the fire and the remains of the church his family helped build.
“It means a lot to me,” he said.