Rural border-town church rebuilding after devastating fire

DRAYTON, N.D. -- For as long as Kris Heine can remember, the historic church nestled into the rural cornfields east of Drayton has been the place she calls home.
Skjeberg Lutheran Church president Kris Heine, left, and Keith Kjelland show the altar and furnishings that will be used in the new church. The altar, communion rail, baptismal font and chairs were donated by Pleasant Valley Lutheran Church near Park River, ND., as well as donations from other parishes that are now closed. photo by Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

DRAYTON, N.D. -- For as long as Kris Heine can remember, the historic church nestled into the rural cornfields east of Drayton has been the place she calls home.

She was baptized there, she married her husband there and it’s where she buried both her parents.

It’s a place passed down to her through generations -- her great-grandparents started going to Skjeberg Lutheran Church just east of the North Dakota-Minnesota border even before the wooden steeple and stained glass windows were even a dream. It’s the place she’s passed down to her children, too. Her daughter married there in the same rural church four generations of family had received blessings at.

That's why tears still roll down her cheeks when she thinks back to March when-just a day after she buried her mother-flames devoured the 135-year-old building, biting away at the hand-crafted pews and melting the altar decorations.

But after months of grief, Heine and the members of Skjeberg church are beginning to heal and making steps toward a new home. By next August, a new church will stand in the same spot as the last.

'A different plan'

Fire officials said lightning struck the church's bell March 4 and neighbors noticed the fiery glow just before 10 p.m.

The winter storm hindered the response as of icy roads made travel treacherous. Several volunteer firefighters ended up in the ditch on their way to the scene, but no one was injured. Heine, who is president of Skjeberg, remembers seeing the church engulfed in flames and falling in on itself by the time she arrived.

"For me, I was still grieving my mother and that was horrific," Heine said. "So that blended right in with the church."

Everything was destroyed during the fire except for the bell, which sparked the fire with the lightning strike.

Heine said the congregation has remained positive despite the tragedy. She said the fire is a lesson from God. It's given them a chance to rebuild a structure to better fit their needs.

Heine said she is excited for the new building to be wheelchair-accessible because its stairs sometimes made it difficult for older members of the congregation to attend. She said there were a list of repairs the old building needed.

"We were thinking we needed to do something to update the church, but God had a different plan," she said.

'Home again'

Since the fire, members have been meeting at Drayton Lutheran for service. The church offered the congregation space for worship services, events and regular classes until they're back on their feet.

Heine said the congregation was overwhelmed by support and offers made by nearby churches. She's thankful for the support but eager to get back to their roots.

Earlier this month, the congregation clasped hands and stood in the shadows of the tall trees separating the church's property from the field. It was the first time they'd worshipped together on site since the blaze.

Congregation members carried their own chairs from home and brought food to share. Pastor Jon Dryburgh belted out special songs and Heine played along on an electric keyboard-a change from the traditional organ she used to play during service.

It wasn't what the congregation was used to, but Heine said it was perfect.

"It felt like we were home again," she said.

They also broke ground on the new construction.

Members voted to rebuild shortly after the fire, Heine said.

"Our church is the people," Heine said. "If we didn't build, where would we all go? We wouldn't all go to the same place, so we would lose our church. Not everybody would go to the place and so Skjeberg would die and nobody wants that."

By the end of July, a design was approved. Three-quarters of the cost is covered by insurance and other funds, but Heine said the congregation is hoping to raise money for the rest of construction.

A number of committees have devoted time to putting together plans for the building. For Heine, who works full time as a school social worker, it's like a second full-time job.

Resurrection

It's only a five-minute drive from Skjeberg to the now-closed downtown pharmacy in Drayton where the heart of the new church lies outstretched on a long, blue tarp.

The 17-foot wooden altar that stood for decades inside the Pleasant Valley Church near Park River is just inside the pharmacy's doorway. Behind it is a matching pulpit, red velvet-lined chairs and a set of curved communion rails.

Keith Kjelland, who owns the pharmacy, and is storing the items until Skjeberg reopens. As a child, he attended Pleasant Valley Church. He said it closed years ago and has been abandoned since. He said he's glad these items were rescued before the old building becomes too dilapidated and is demolished.

It'll be emotional to see the pieces in use again, he said.

Kjelland was drawn to Skjeberg several years ago because it felt familiar. He said he liked the rural setting and the welcoming congregation-it instantly felt like home.

"It's more of a family, it's just a closer church," he said. "The people are more supportive."

After word spread about Skjeberg's fire, Heine said members from now-closed rural churches reached out to offer furnishings.

The pews will come from Lankin, the Lakota Church of Christ donated kitchen supplies and a church in Sykeston gave tables and chairs for the dining hall.

"They're excited because part of their church will live on with us and what else are you going to do with those items," Heine said. "And we're excited because this way we can put all our money into the building."

While other rural churches have closed, Heine said Skjeberg is still growing-even after the fire. Since March they've added about 14 members to their roughly 100-person congregation.

She said the tightly knit congregation makes Skjeberg feel like home-it's why people keep coming back.

"We're an active church, you don't just come here on Sunday and that's it," she said.

How to help

Donations can be sent to Skjeberg Lutheran Church, c/o Koda Bank, Box 369, Drayton, ND 58225.

An earlier version of this story contained an error about the church's location.