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Fire destroys Finland’s only church building

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Forum News Service

Members of Zion Lutheran Church in Finland gathered Sunday to worship at the Clair Nelson Community Center after fire destroyed their church Saturday night.

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A lightning strike appears to have started the destructive blaze, according to Finland Fire Chief Pete Walsh. A 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.

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.

“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.

The Zion church building dates to 1957 and was the only traditional house of worship in Finland.

“In such a small town, the church sort of became a community centerpiece,” said Rev. Tom Murray. “In addition to being a place of worship, the church also served as a community gathering place.”

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 B.J. 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.

“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.

“It will take time to work through the insurance issues, but I presume we will rebuild on the same site,” Murray said.

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