Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Rebuilding a rural Minnesota church January 1, 2012

St. John's Lutheran Church in Vesta, hours after a July 1 "series of downbursts" with winds of 90 - 100 mph ripped half of the south roof off. Photo courtesy of Brian Kletscher.

FOR SIX MONTHS NOW, since strong winds ripped half the roof from St. John’s Lutheran Church in my hometown of Vesta, the congregation has been without a permanent place to worship.

The southern half of the roof was ripped off by high winds and toppled onto the bell tower, which has since been removed. It was attached to the sides of the entry, as seen in this image from September.

Inside the sanctuary I listened to the wind flap the tarp that covered the damaged roof in September.

The pews and other items from the church were moved into the undamaged social hall.

Ponder that for a moment. If you are a church-going person, how would you be impacted by the temporary closure of your church building?

Here’s how St. John’s members have dealt with the situation: They are worshipping at their sister congregation, Peace Lutheran in Echo, about 10 miles away. They are holding Sunday School classes in the Vesta Community Hall. They are rebuilding and expanding St. John’s.

Repairs and building expansion are underway at St. John's in this photo taken on December 23.

The south side church expansion includes an office, handicapped accessible bathroom and an enlarged narthex, according to my mom, who attends St. John's.

Like the strong prairie people they are, St. John’s folks are adapting. They are helping one another, offering rides to those who can’t/don’t wish to drive to Echo, especially during the winter months.

Yet, this absence of their church within their community can’t always be easy. Imagine losing a loved one who attended St. John’s, whose death could not be mourned in the comfort of familiar surroundings. The same goes for celebrating baptisms and weddings.

In a small town like Vesta, population around 330, a church knits people and lives together into a community of care. That still exists. But, without a building, it takes extra effort to maintain that closeness.

For those who call St. John’s home and for those of us who grew up in this congregation, the reopening of these church doors cannot come soon enough.

Will “soon” be Easter?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Damage suggests tornado hit Wood Lake farm July 6, 2011

DAN AND MARILYN SCHMIDT had just arrived for the July Fourth holiday weekend at a west central Minnesota lake when they got the phone call from their daughter, Heather Rokeh. She was calling from Marshall with news that a storm had swept through town. It was late Friday afternoon, July 1.

Dan asked about their farm 20 miles northeast of Marshall. Heather suggested that “it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have someone check it out.”

And so Heather’s sister, Amy St. Pierre, and Amy’s husband and daughter went to the farm, surveyed the damage, then called the Schmidts. The couple returned that night to inspect their Wood Lake area farm.

Every building had been damaged. Hail pounded holes in the siding on the house, where shingles and an antenna were blown off. The door of the Quonset building had been ripped away with part of the board trim speared into the ground.

Half the roof was blown off the shop, collapsing an interior wall. That wall is now being held up by two chains and a tractor until items inside can be removed and the building demolished.

Another view of the caved-in shop wall.

The exposed interior of the shop.

Trees were down or uprooted. Branches littered the farmyard. On one of the two houses on the farm site, the garage was pulled away from the house, leaving a visible gap.

Here you see light shining through the space where an attached garage was separated from the house during Friday's storm.

“A lot of these things spelled out tornado for us,” says Heather. “The twisting of the trees, things stuck in the ground and the twisted buildings all suggest tornado to us.”

Whether straight-line winds or tornado, Heather remains grateful: “We are so thankful no one was injured.”

This lean-to, connected to a hog barn, was lifted up, twisted and set back down on top of a stock chopper. The hog barn was OK, but the lean-to was deemed unsafe and removed on Saturday.

This photo shows a portion of the lean-to that was lifted and dropped onto the stock chopper pictured here.

This grain dryer was moved and it is now sitting crooked on its foundation. The cement slab foundation was cracked and cement blocks are now sitting at an angle.

IF YOUR FARM, HOME or community was damaged during the July 1 storm in southwestern Minnesota, I’d like to hear from you. Submit a comment summarizing your storm experience, the damage to your property or town, and progress toward recovery. If you have photos to share, like those above from my cousin Heather, let me know and I’ll be in touch.

Also check out my previous posts on storm damage in my hometown of Vesta and in neighboring Belview.

PHOTOS BY HEATHER ROKEH Copyright 2011

Text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling