Last Saturday's annual Nordland Mission Fest and charity auction went fairly uneventfully until thunderstorms, which also hit much of central Minnesota, paid a visit to Lake Koronis Regional Park. Members and friends of the church were assembling in the quonset for the mission's auction, when they were caught quite off guard by the storm.
As electricity in the two shelters went out, those assembled waited it out. Although the storm sparked no lightning induced fire, it was ironically reminiscent of the one responsible for burning their previous church to the ground in 1904.
The fire of 1904 went down in the church's history, but appeared as little more than a blurb in the August 5, 1904 issue of the Paynesville Press. On page five it read, "The big rain and electrical storms of the season broke over this section last Friday and Saturday nights. The one of Saturday night was especially severe and crops of all kinds were badly lodged. The large Lutheran church in Irving was struck by lightning and burned and Frank Brown reports considerable damage to his large barn and the school house just south of his place. The telephone company was also a sufferer, about thirty-five phones being put out of business by the lightning."
The church, begun by Norwegian immigrants from a northern province of Norway called Nordland, stands on the same site it originally did, in Irving Township. The fire was a memorable site for Myrtle Hagen's, a life-long member, late husband Alvin. Alvin was only four at that time, but he had remembered clearly watching from his family's window, as the fire engulfed the old church.
The fire was an event that was talked about and remembered for many years after. Ninety-year-old Henry Sunde hadn't come into this world yet, but his older brothers told him about it as soon as he was old enough to understand. "It rained all through the night. There was so much lightning," he said. "It was like day time," Ruby Borsheim's mother had told her. "There was so much flame lightning, you could read a newspaper outside."
The storm emblazoned itself on the memories of those immigrant families, many of whom didn't even speak English, as the church services at that time were given in the Norwegian language, and the children were baptized and confirmed in the old language, on into the 1930s and 40s when the services were gradually changed to English, to accommodate other nationalities in their area.
Myrtle Hagen was confirmed in 1918, and memorized the catechism in Norwegian, and Henry Sunde remembered his first day of school, when he wasn't able to speak a word of English. He learned it gradually, listening to the older students and teacher in their one-room country school. "We were never bored back then," Sunde joked. "There was no such thing as bored."
As a few of Nordland's oldest members recalled the early history of their church and community, dark clouds rolled over Lake Koronis. Within minutes, rain poured down in sheets, drenching those still eating in the north shelter and blowing casseroles off the table, as many people crawled under picnic tables.
When the storm hit, the majority of people had already assembled for the auction in the quonset. Some still milled around the front of the building, looking at the handmade quilts and other pieces about to be auctioned off for mission's work. No one gave much thought to the rain outside until the lights flicked off and on a couple times.
Church members brought the boarded window covers up to the windows and attached them while Kathryn Teede Hodinger, intern from Paynesville Lutheran Church in Paynesville, opened the auction with a blessing. Almost shouting over the roar of the rain pelting down on the roof, she said, "I open this auction in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit."
The lights flicked on and off again, then went out for good. In the near darkness, the congregation began to sing "Amazing Grace," as the wooden shutters blew off the east and south windows. A couple men retrieved them from the rain outside, managing to fasten them before a thunderous crash was heard in the darkness, and a piece of a rafter fell to the floor at the front of the building where the quilts and other items were displayed.
Having finished all verses of "Amazing Grace," those assembled began "How Great thou Art" as they waited for the storm to die down. When the worst was over, the shutters were removed and the congregation saw what had felled part of the rafter. A large tree had been split at its base, and blocked the east window and door. Several others were downed throughout the park.
With some folks in the other shelter drenched, but no one hurt, the auction resumed in the dark. Allen Anderson, auction leader, lightened the atmosphere as he joked, "why don't you just write out a big check, and I'll hand you something." More than $7000 was raised during the fest, including what will be used for their church-sponsored mission work, to ensure that others will also know the cornerstones of their beliefs; including the words that were written on the wall of their first church, "Jeg er veien, ag Sandheden, ag, Livet," I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Reflecting on the magnificence of their God, the congregation of Nordland Lutheran Church went forward, yet again, into their next 129 years. "Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. 'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."
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