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Firefighters battle blaze at church

WINDOM -- The sanctuary of Windom's American Lutheran Church was heavily damaged in an early morning fire Wednesday that had firefighters from three departments responding. Challenges in the height of the sanctuary's roof and the location of hot spots between roof layers kept firefighters on the scene for eight hours.

Mutual aid -- in the form of pumpers, water tankers and manpower -- was supplied by both the Mountain Lake and Lakefield fire departments.

Windom fire department spokesman Buckwheat Johnson said firefighters arrived on the scene to find the church sanctuary and entryway filled with smoke, and smoke was billowing from the roof of the building.

"There was a really high heat and smoke in the sanctuary, but there were really no flames," said Johnson.

Johnson said part of the challenge in fighting the fire was uncovering the hot spots lodged between the six layers that formed the roof over the sanctuary. Hot spots were buried between layers of slate roof, asphalt shingles and the newest layer -- a steel roof.

Despite the difficulty in getting at the hot spots, Windom Fire Chief Dan Fossing said, "Our guys did an excellent job of knocking down the fire. All three departments did an excellent job in containing the fire."

The worst of the damage was in the front of the church, where the walls had peeled away and the narthex and first several rows of pews were heavily charred, said Johnson. The south part of the sanctuary also suffered extensive damage. Though the state fire marshal was on the scene by Wednesday afternoon, Johnson said the cause of the fire remained under investigation.

According to Karen Skarpohl, who serves as church custodian with her husband Jim, a passerby noticed smoke coming from the church's bell tower shortly before 4 a.m. At the same time, an on-duty City of Windom police officer was searching for the source of an immense amount of smoke surrounding the Prospect Avenue neighborhood.

The Skarpohls were called to the scene to unlock the sanctuary doors so firefighters could get at the source of the fire.

"The fact that the sanctuary was closed up as tight as it was really saved the building," she said. "It didn't have any oxygen to keep burning."

Because of the extent of the roof damage, Skarpohl speculated the fire may have been caused by something electrical.

"Our church is in pretty bad shape right now," Skarpohl said. Yet, as bad as the sanctuary may appear, she is certain parishioners will again gather for Sunday morning service on Prospect Avenue.

"I know we will rebuild," she said. "We are a congregation that will pull through this ... and we will worship in that place again."

The Rev. Stephen Norby, the senior pastor of the ELCA church, knows the congregation will pull together -- they already have.

"I could not be more proud of this town," said Norby Wednesday evening. He expressed gratitude and "humble thanks" to all of the volunteer firefighters who worked to save the church and was thankful that no one was injured in the fire.

"The outpouring of support from all the churches of Windom, the community, the area and the media has been a source of great inspiration," said Norby. "Our congregation will meet to worship our Lord and Savior on Sunday morning and continue the mission of our church.

"In total confidence, we will return to our sanctuary one day," he added.

The American Lutheran Church was built in Windom in 1950. Nearly 20 years later, an addition was completed to allow for more Sunday school classrooms and, in the 1990s, an elevator system was added.

Skarpohl said both of the newer additions sustained some smoke damage, but they will be salvaged. Still, it will be some time before they are back in the building, she believed.

Already on Wednesday, the church's phone lines were being forwarded to the secretary's home, and an emergency meeting of the church council was planned for 7 p.m. Wednesday night to make some decisions. Earlier in the day, church staff gathered to develop a temporary plan of action.

"At this point, the plan is to carry on as best we can," said Skarpohl.

While the church normally conducts three weekend services -- one Saturday night and two on Sunday morning -- Norby said they will have a fellowship and Sunday school for the congregation at 9 a.m. Sunday at the Business, Arts and Recreation Center (BARC) in Windom.

"At this time, we think the congregation needs to worship together -- to work through the healing process," Skarpohl said.

Other churches have offered space for the American Lutheran Church parishioners to worship, including the Bethany Lutheran Church of Bergen, where Norby and the Rev. Greg Hall both serve as interim ministers in addition to their positions at American Lutheran Church.

"The people out here in rural Minnesota are good people," said Skarpohl of the offers for help and support. "We have no doubt we will find places to meet."

Skarpohl said the church was insured, and that adjusters were already on the scene Wednesday morning.

"There's a lot of cleaning to be done," she added. "But, it could have been much worse."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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