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‘Out of the ashes will rise a new church’: Fire destroys historic St. Mary’s Mission Church

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The chimney of St. Mary's Mission Church still stands as people survey the damage after a devastating fire destroyed the church early Saturday morning in Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 6
Remnants of the bell tower in St. Mary's Mission Church still stood also after a fire destroyed the building early Saturday in Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)3 / 6
The chimney of St. Mary's Mission Church still stands after a fire was reported at 2:30 a.m. Saturday in Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)4 / 6
What was left of St. Mary's Mission Church was still smoldering at noon Saturday after a fire destroyed the church early that morning. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)5 / 6
A fire destroyed the St. Mary's Mission Church overnight Saturday. (Submitted photo)6 / 6

RED LAKE -- The wreckage of St. Mary’s Mission Church was still smoldering at noon Saturday as congregants stood at the edge of a caution-tape boundary, paying their respects.

The historic church, which has served the Red Lake Reservation since the 1800s, burned to the ground overnight, leaving nothing but the chimney intact. Charred debris had traveled the entire length of the large field that separated the church from the nearby fire station, and wood splinters showed where the bell tower had stood.

A few at a time, Red Lake residents and other churchgoers stopped by the site to observe the remains or speak with Father Jerry Rogers, who runs the church and school.

“It’s as if an elder has died,” Rogers said, observing the historic building’s remnants. “The church has been a source of wisdom, and (congregants) have learnt wisdom in its walls. So it’s a death in the family.”

According to the College of St. Benedict’s website, the St. Mary’s Mission School was founded in 1888 after two Benedictine sisters from the monastery in St. Joseph, Minn., responded to a request from Red Lake to minister on the reservation.

The school itself, which was not damaged in the fire, serves children from preschool age through the sixth grade.

The blaze that claimed the church was unlike anything Red Lake Fire Chief Mark Sigana has seen in his 18 years fighting fires. A police officer noticed smoke coming from the church at 2:36 a.m. and called the fire department, which was on the scene minutes later.

Firefighters saw flames coming from the church’s southwest corner and tried to enter the building through the basement, Sigana said, but were pushed back by heavy smoke and flames.

“Within a matter of minutes it took off like paper,” he said. “There was no stopping it.”

The Red Lake Fire Department asked for help and received aid from the Alaska Volunteer Fire Department, which sent two members. Ten Red Lake firefighters also responded, but could not save the church building.

“We actually had to pull back and fight it from the outside,” Sigana said. “After we knew that it was unsavable, we changed the plan to protecting the structures around it, and that’s pretty much all we could do.”

Rogers said firefighters were on the scene until 8 a.m. The fire department planned to remain nearby all day, working to figure out the cause of the blaze. Though foul play and arson are not suspected, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives must investigate, as it is required by law to investigate all church fires to ensure a hate crime has not taken place.

No one was hurt, Rogers and Sigana said, much to the relief of the children who attend school and services at the church.

“The first concern of the kids were if I was in there, they said, ‘Is Father Jerry OK?” Rogers said. “One of the little first-graders said, ‘The church can’t be burning, the church can’t be burning, that’s where Jesus lives.’ This little girl came, and she said, ‘I love church, are we going to stop having church?”

But Rogers was quick to reassure the youngest churchgoers.

“We’re still going to have church, because we’re still church,” he said. “We look upon the church as our skin. It gives us the place where we can gather, and now we’ll find a new place to gather. And out of the ashes will rise a new church.”

Though the vestments, chalices and other necessary items were lost in the fire, Rogers will still preside over services at 10:45 a.m. Sunday in the St. Mary’s Mission school’s gymnasium. Volunteers were already hard at work moving another pulpit into the gym to prepare.

“We intend to seize this crisis as an opportunity,” Rogers said. “A new phase in the life of the reservation, in the sense that it’s the people who will build the church. They will have to make the decision as to where, when. And they’re capable of doing that.”

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or

(218) 333-9796