Congregation rebuilds country church after lightning strike takes out historic place of worship
Leading up to a Sunday worship service at Hawk Creek Lutheran Church two years ago, the Sunday school students had been practicing a song all week that they would be performing.
However, a storm rolled into the area around 9 a.m. the previous morning, and lightning struck the church, located four miles northwest of Sacred Heart in Wang Township, on July 23, 2016. People as far as three miles away could hear the bolt’s wrath but were unaware of what, if anything, had been hit.
“I live in Sacred Heart, and I could hear it,” said Dan Bowman, the pastor of Hawk Creek Lutheran Church. “But I had no idea the church had been hit.”
Pastor Bowman then got a call from one of the trustees of the church, informing him that the church was on fire and that he should come there immediately.
“On my way to the church, I called my mother in Kansas to tell her that it was on fire,” he recalled. “When I got there, the front part of the roof was smoking, but I didn’t see any flames.”
Firemen from Sacred Heart, who were later joined by nine other fire departments, tried to contain the fire trapped between several layers under the roof. They broke through two walls but didn’t reach the smoldering area that had been hit by the lightning.
Eventually, the situation became dangerous, as the front area of the church, now in flames, was directly below the steeple and the 400-pound church bell. Fearing the steeple and bell would eventually topple on top of the firemen, they backed off and waited. Their hope was that if the steeple burned and eventually fell to the ground, bringing the bell with it, the firemen could then douse the burning area inside the roof and save the rest of the church.
But the uncooperative fire had other ideas and moved up the steeple, while also working its way into the attic above the sanctuary.
Several firemen knelt on the ground and watched with a feeling of despair and helplessness as the flames slowly ate away at the 140-year-old place of worship.
“There was nothing they could do,” said Pastor Bowman, who has been the Hawk Creek Church pastor for the past 11 years. “It was like a doctor telling a family there is nothing more he or she can do. I got down on my knees, too; both on the ground and in my heart.”
Before the flames engulfed the church, the beautiful, 20-foot ornate altar was saved by the firemen, as was the large painting of Jesus affixed to the middle of it.
“My mother later told me that after I had called her on the way to the fire, she prayed for the altar to be saved,” Pastor Bowman relayed.
The baptismal font, paschal candle, and church history records and photos were also among items salvaged by firemen. But the church organ, pews, songbooks and much more were all lost in the fire.
It took the firemen from all the departments over six hours to quell the flames.
The 170 active members of the church were deeply saddened by the news of the loss of their generational church. Many of them attended worship services the next day at Rock Valle Lutheran Church in Echo, where Bowman is also the pastor.
And with heavy hearts, the Sunday school children were able to sing the song they had been practicing; appropriately called I Know the Plans I Have for You, taken from Jeremiah 29:11.
“I know the plans I have for you,”
declares the LORD,
“plans to prosper you and not to hurt you,
plans to give you hope and a future.”
The fire left a void in the hearts of members and nonmembers of the historic country church.
“Fortunately, no one was injured. But losing the church felt like a death,” said Pastor Bowman. “So we held an actual memorial service for the church on Aug. 28 and buried some of its ashes on the site. And there was a wake the night before where we got together and talked about how we were looking ahead to a new beginning.”
Sacred Heart firemen came to the memorial service in their trucks and provided the meal following the ceremony.
“They wanted to give us a gift because they were unable to save the church,” Pastor Bowman said.
After the memorial service, things began to move forward for members of Hawk Creek Lutheran Church.
“I was overcome with grief,” Pastor Bowman admitted. “The loss of their beloved church was a huge sorrow to a lot of people. But we said farewell to the old church. And I figured we could all overcome this because God is always with us.”
Not long after, a vote was taken on whether or not to rebuild the church. The church members, most of them from among the 500 people of Sacred Heart, unanimously voted to rebuild by a 69-0 vote.
“You can’t get 69 Lutherans to agree on anything,” joked Pastor Bowman. “But they all agreed on the importance of a new beginning. A lot of people (nonmembers) wondered why we wanted to rebuild, saying it’s just a building and that a lot of churches are closing. But it was more than just a building to all of us. It was a powerful influence to so many people, both young and old. A lot of people had their lives changed in that church.”
When a KSTP-TV reporter came to the Hawk Creek Church to report on the fire and what the future held for the congregation, he questioned then first-grader Raegyn Glady about whether she felt a new church should be built.
Without hesitation, the little girl responded; “Yes, and if I need to build a lemonade stand to get the money, I will, so we can buy a new church.”
The new Hawk Creek Church was built on March 20, 2018, and dedicated on April 29. At the dedication, there was Raegyn with her lemonade.
“As the offering was received, Raegyn joined in by bringing in a pitcher of lemonade as a symbol of the joy our children have brought us,” said Pastor Bowman.
When asked what he missed the most about the former Hawk Creek Church, Pastor Bowman took no time to ponder the question.
“The main thing was the location and space. It was where many people met Jesus in the form of fellowship, confirmation, baptism and worship,” he said. “That part will be missed by many people, including myself.”
The new church was able to be constructed through insurance reimbursements, money amassed from a GoFundMe account that was immediately set up following the fire, as well as other donations.
The new church was built only 10 yards from the former church. The former altar, baptismal font and records have all been placed in a separate room in the new church. The paschal candle, a long white candle lit and blessed during Easter and also used for baptisms and funerals, did not melt in the fire. The candle is now situated next to the new altar in the place of worship.
The former altar’s height made it impossible to place it in the new church’s worship area.
“We would have had to add about 3 more feet to the roof,” Pastor Bowman explained. “We just didn’t have the money to do that. It also didn’t match all the new wood railings, pews and other things, and we wanted consistency. Mainly, though, we wanted a new beginning, so we brought in a smaller altar that looks more like a table.”
A piano and organ were donated to the church; the former from the family of a deceased nonmember of Hawk Creek Church, and the latter from current member Randy Moe, who restores organs.
A processional cross on a stand was made by church members Jane Aalderks and Liz Lanning from broken pieces of stained glass from the former church. The frame of the cross is made of wood with the middle filled with stained glass pieces affixed to plexiglass to allow light to shine through. The pieces are arranged to reflect Jesus with outstretched arms with rays of sunlight overhead.
At the bottom of the cross, secured inside the plexiglass, are three antiquated square nails that came from the old church. Those nails now represent Jesus nailed to the cross.
“That cross with the broken pieces of stained glass was made to tell the story that all of our broken pieces in the form of faults, mistakes and failures come together again to represent a new body of Christ,” Pastor Bowman told. “So now we have a new beginning.”