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Finland fire destroys building, but not spirit

A lightning strike is suspected of causing the fire that destroyed Zion Lutheran Church in Finland Saturday night. Crews from all over the North Shore were on hand to fight the blaze. Photo by BJ Kohlstedt.1 / 3
Fire fighters were able to save the church's parsonage, but despite their efforts, little remained of Zion Lutheran Church Sunday morning. Photo by Cristina Manahan.2 / 3
A hand-lettered sign directed Zion Lutheran worshipers to the Clair Nelson center for services last Sunday morning. Photo by Joyce Hart.3 / 3

Just days before a fire destroyed the only church in Finland, Zion Lutheran Church Pastor Tom Murray sent out a newsletter to his parishioners.

The July 1 missive proved to be prophetic.

Murray wrote about an experience he had as a boy - cresting a hill and expecting to see the white country church where his great-grandfather preached. But when he reached the top, the church was gone. All that remained were white clapboards, strewn as far as the eye could see by a tornado the night before.

"That day in 1962 when everything seemed dark and hopeless is now long forgotten," Murray said, though he didn't explain whatever happened to the little country church afterward. Instead, he focused on how the tragedy transformed the congregation, concluding: "We are God's church. We live to tell the story."

The people of Zion Lutheran seem to be taking that message to heart. And, they say, they will rebuild.

'Hottest fire I've ever seen'

On Sunday, a handmade sign fashioned from a piece of pink foam insulation directed the faithful to the Clair Nelson Community Center for worship

"I was confirmed in that church... in 1958," said Silver Bay City Councilor Carlene Perfetto posted on Facebook. "No matter where I have been across the nation, nor how many churches I have prayed in, I still believe in my heart I will always be a member of Zion Lutheran Church. The building may be gone, but the church lives on."

A lightning strike appears to have started the destructive blaze, according to Fire Chief Pete Walsh. The state fire marshal continues to investigate the fire, but based on what neighbors saw and heard, Walsh said, "We're very comfortable believing this was the result of lightning."

Members of the Finland Volunteer Fire Department received their first report of the fire about 9 p.m. Saturday and arrived on the scene to find the church's kitchen area "partially involved" in fire and flames, Walsh said.

The fire quickly spread throughout the upper levels of the building. "I've been doing this for 35-plus years, and it was the hottest fire I've ever seen," Walsh said, adding that the heat caused water to evaporate before it hit the ground.

He called for firefighting reinforcements from neighboring communities, including Silver Bay, Two Harbors, Lutsen and Schroeder. Finland is just up the shore from Silver Bay on Minnesota State Highway 1.

Walsh said he also received assistance from VanHouse Construction of Silver Bay, which brought in a tanker truck to supply water. He explained that the small town of Finland, with a population of about 200, doesn't have a system of fire hydrants.

Firefighters were able to stop the fire from spreading to a nearby parsonage, but Walsh said the church was a total loss, with only a few concrete walls left standing by the time crews cleared the scene about 7 a.m. Sunday.

'We have the resolve'

"I can't tell you how appreciative I am for all the help we received," Walsh said. "The end result wasn't what I would have wanted, but at least no one was injured."

Walsh acknowledged the fire dealt a painful blow to Finland.

"Unfortunately, we lost a lot of history last night," he said on Sunday morning.

Murray, the pastor, said the church is more than a house of worship for the community of about 200 people..

"The church also served as a community gathering place," he said.

Congregation member Karsten Hogenson pointed to a number of unaffiliated groups that regularly met at the church, including a weekly gathering of local craft makers and a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. The church also hosted community events, such as the annual St. Urho's Day pancake breakfast.

As the only church venue in the community, Zion handled numerous ceremonies, including baptisms, marriages and funerals.

"Many people were shocked and saddened to learn of this fire," Hogenson said. "Just the building itself carried with it such a tremendous number of memories of important life events."

"Just about everyone in Finland was connected to that church in some way," said BJ Kohlstedt, a Finland resident and emergency management director for Lake County.

Although the church now has only about 75 active members, Murray expressed optimism in its ability to rebound. He noted the church building was insured and that once the paperwork is sorted out, he expects that the church community will rebuild on the same site.

"It's a small congregation that's grieving right now. But I think we have the resolve to put the pieces back together, move on and begin living the Gospel in a new setting," he said.

Peter Passi contributed to this report.

Fire Chief Pete Walsh and the Finland Fire Department said they would like to thank the following for their assistance at the Zion Church fire the evening of July 16. "The response was overwhelming and highly appreciated," said Walsh.

Two Harbors Fire Department

Silver Bay Fire Department

Schroder Fire Department

Tofte Fire Department

Lutsen Fire Department

Lake County Rescue

Lake County Ambulance

Vanhouse Construction

Lake County Sheriff's Office

Lake County Dispatchers

Minnesota State Fire Marshal

"I'm sure I missed others who assisted. I would like to thank the members of the Finland Fire Department, you gave 100% plus," Walsh concluded.