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Minn. church burns to the ground

HUMBOLDT - The only church in Humboldt, Minn., burned to the ground in a fire discovered shortly before midnight Saturday.

The pastor, Gary Johnson, grew up and was baptized in the Methodist church in Humboldt, where he's lived all his life.

Humboldt is only six miles from Canada and about eight miles southeast of Pembina, N.D., on U.S. Highway 75.

Johnson, 71, is a retired schoolteacher and farmer who is in his fifth year of seminary and licensed as a local pastor in the United Methodist Church where he grew up. The close family connections make the loss even deeper, he said.

A member of the congregation and Johnson's son, Lee Johnson, was returning to town when he spotted the fire about 11:30 p.m. Saturday. Soon, firefighters from five departments were battling the blaze, Johnson said.

"It was totaled," he said Tuesday.

Insurance adjusters examined the ruins Tuesday, Johnson said.

The fire clearly originated in the area housing the furnace and the electrical equipment, Johnson said. Firefighters decided that a state fire marshal's investigation wasn't needed because there is no sign of any vandalism or other foul play, he said.

But the loss is historic. Humboldt United Methodist was one of the oldest church buildings in the region.

Built in the 1890s as a Methodist-Episcopal Church by English immigrants, many from the Prince Edward Island region of eastern Canada , the church was the community center in Humboldt, used by "everyone," Johnson said.

He serves three North Dakota congregations, in Drayton, Joliet and Pembina, as well as in Humboldt.

The Rev. Marilyn Spurrell, the district superintendent in the Dakotas Conference of the United Methodist Church came to Humboldt on Sunday to help lead a service at the burned-out site and later in Johnson's farm home. The Rev. Jerry Bass from Grand Forks, part of Johnson's ministry team, also was there.

"We had the support of the whole conference," Johnson said. "I'm glad we have such a connectional church. They helped us in the time of grieving."

The congregation of about 60 will meet Sunday morning in the home of Lynda Cassels, a daughter of the pastor. "For the foreseeable future, we will meet in homes while we figure out what we are going to do," Johnson said.

News of the fire spread around the world via the Internet by Sunday morning, Johnson said. "We're hearing from people from all corners, all denominations."