January 11, 2023 at 5:31 p.m.
UMC marks 50th anniversary of old church burning down
In a few months, the United Methodist Church in Sauk Centre will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of their current church’s completion; this month, though, also marks the 50th anniversary of the fire that destroyed their original church that was over a century old. While the loss of the original 1865 worship space was a hardship for the congregation, the outpouring of community support after the disaster is still apparent today.
“The physical church building is very important to congregation members. It is center to their spiritual upbringing, formation and growth,” said Jacob Holck, pastor of UMC in Sauk Centre. “Many memories are created at their place of worship, especially with families. They deeply mourn and grieve the loss of the building; there definitely is a sense of loss there, but luckily for us, there were members of the church who were determined to continue this faith community, and they rallied together and built the building we currently occupy.”
Holck has been UMC’s pastor since 2020; it was during his tour from the church’s Staff Parish Relation Committee that he learned about the blaze on Jan. 6, 1973. The church has a cabinet that still contains some news clippings and a few artifacts salvaged from the fire, including a cross, a candelabra, fragments from the stained glass windows, communion and collection plates and a children’s chair.
Holck also got the story from Don Leonard, a longtime member of Sauk Centre’s UMC.
Leonard moved from Verndale to Sauk Centre in 1966, one year after UMC in Sauk Centre celebrated its centennial, and he has been a church trustee for some time. He also joined the Sauk Centre Fire Department in 1968 and worked for the Sauk Centre Water and Light Commission.
The evening of Jan. 6, 1973, Mr. and Mrs. Ed Peterson came to the church to prepare the altar for communion services; they smelled smoke and pulled the fire alarm. To this day, it is unclear how the fire started, but Leonard would not be surprised to learn if the cause was related to the bat problem in the church attic – possibly a bird bringing in a smoldering cigarette butt.
“It was an old church with old wiring, but there was really no power being consumed at the time, no load for a wire to overheat,” Leonard said. “It was never really determined what the cause could’ve been.”
The SCFD was called to the scene around 7 p.m., and while they believed the blaze could be contained, Leonard and several other firefighters moved an upright piano out of the church early on.
“One of the chiefs saw four of us start out the door with it,” Leonard said. “He said, ‘Where are you going with this? Put it back, we’ll have it out in a few minutes,’ so we carried it back. Then, he went out the other door of the church, and we carried it out and said, ‘Hey, if we get the fire out, we’ll put it back.’”
The piano never went back inside – at least, not into the old church.
Soon, it became clear that more water was needed, and because he was a member of Sauk Centre Water and Light, Leonard went to start some pumps. After he took care of that, he then needed to get a bucket truck to cut a nearby power line; it was close to the building, so cutting it early would prevent it from snapping accidentally and electrocuting someone below.
“I missed some of the fire because I was busy with other issues,” Leonard said.
The firefighters opened some holes in the church roof so they could locate the fire and spray down on it. Unfortunately, by Leonard’s estimation, opening those holes created a draft which fueled the fire. According to the Sauk Centre Herald’s report, the blaze lit up the sky and could be seen for miles around town; the Melrose Fire Department was also called in to assist.
In spite of the firefighters’ best efforts, by the time they got the fire under control, it was basically burning in the church’s foundations. It was a Saturday evening, but instead of resting before the next day’s service, Leonard and a couple of others ended up staying on scene overnight to keep an eye on the smolders.
The fire soon made national news.
“It was quite a shock to the whole city,” Leonard said.
Sauk Centre immediately rallied behind the Methodist community; the Good Samaritan Episcopal Church let the displaced Methodists hold services in their church while the current church was being built. People also donated money toward the new church. Bill Unger with Unger Furniture contributed the carpet, and many other donors are listed on brass tags on a plaque in the church as well as on its pews.
A contractor from Cokato was brought in to build the new place of worship.
“They were putting up a lot of churches at the time, so they just took one of their standard designs,” Leonard said.
The new UMC church was finished in the spring of 1973 on the site of the old church. Not long after its completion, the pastor, Jim Jameson, mentioned from the pulpit that he had gotten a note from a company that specialized in bat removal products; they had been contacted for the old church before it burned down.
“They saw (the news) at the company, and they wrote a letter back to Jim,” Leonard said. “It said, ‘We see you got rid of the bats.’ The initial letter (Jameson) had written to them said, ‘Do you have something to get rid of the bats, short of burning the place down?’”
Today, Sauk Centre’s UMC is in the early stages of planning an event for the late spring, closer to the anniversary of the new church’s completion rather than the old church’s destruction. So far, they anticipate holding a community meal and open house.
“As devastating as a fire as that was, I really have to admire those congregation members for sticking together and continuing on with the Methodist Church here in Sauk Centre,” Holck said. “With many churches to choose from in those days, that was no easy feat. We at the Sauk Centre UMC have weathered our first church burning down, we’ve survived COVID and we are ready to celebrate 50 years of faith, family and community.”