Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Ten months after the storm, a rural Minnesota congregation returns “home” May 4, 2012

St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Vesta, hours after a July 1, 2011, storm ripped half the roof from the sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Brian Kletscher.

“There is no place like home. We cannot wait to be back in our own church.”

And so, 10 months after a powerful July 1, 2011, storm packing winds of 90 – 100 mph ripped half the roof from St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota, congregants will worship for the first time in their rebuilt sanctuary this Sunday morning.

I expect many of St. John’s 323 baptized members feel exactly as my uncle, Milan Stage, does—simply happy to return to the comfortable familiarity of their home church.

Since the storm, parishioners have worshiped at their sister congregation in neighboring Echo. Says long-time St. John’s member Karen Lemcke, “We thank Peace Lutheran of Echo for allowing us to join their services for all of this time. It was enjoyable to be in fellowship with them but still nice to be back in our church.”

Inside St. John’s sanctuary in September, I listened to the wind flap the tarp that covered the damaged roof.

When worshipers arrive at St. John’s Sunday morning, they will enter through a new south-facing 20 x 40-foot addition which includes a handicap accessible bathroom, storage room and study area/office for the pastor.

And above them a new south roof—the portion ripped off by the winds—and a new exterior steel roof cover the sanctuary refurbished with new ceiling planking and hanging lights.

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

They’ll walk on new carpeting and settle onto new pew cushions to hear the sermon delivered by a former St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Randy Bader, Mission Advancement Director of Great Plains Lutheran High School in Watertown, S.D.  Says Rev. Bader, in part:

I am planning on using the Holy Spirit-inspired words of Isaiah as the basis for the sermon. It includes these words: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

We may wonder why our gracious God would allow such a dangerous and difficult situation to touch the lives of His people as it did on that July day last summer. So often we do not understand. But the truth is, we don’t have to understand. Jesus has a purpose for everything that he allows to happen to us, and His ultimate purpose is to bless and save us. 

…Trust Him. His love is the constant, in, and even through, challenging circumstances.

A debris pile on the edge of the church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof and brick from the bell tower. Photo taken in September 2011.

Under construction in March, a pastor’s office, bathroom and storage room were added to the south side of the early 1970s era church.

St. John’s members like my 80-year-old mom, especially, welcome the reopening of the church. It’s much easier for her to drive across town to worship services and other functions than to drive or catch a ride the eight miles to Peace Lutheran in Echo. I’m thankful for family members who’ve taken my mom to church services.

During the 10 months since the storm ravaged Vesta and the surrounding area, I’ve kept tabs on St. John’s, checking in most visits back to my hometown to see how the reconstruction was progressing. This, after all, is the church where I was married 30 years ago this May 15. It is the church where my family mourned the loss of our father, maternal grandfather, paternal grandmother and many other loved ones. We celebrated family weddings here and attended confirmations and worshiped here on Sunday mornings and on Christmas Eve.

The old saying goes that a church is not a building. That adage holds true if you consider the essence of a congregation.

But, there is much to be said for a physical structure, for the memories it holds, for the comfort it gives in familiarity. Boards and walls and details in construction and décor connect us to our past, to emotions and to loved ones. A place represents, if anything, a tangible legacy of faith.

And in a farming town like Vesta, population 330, a church building also serves as a place to gather, to swap rain gauge totals and crop reports, to exchange family news, to embrace each other in sorrow and in joy, to welcome the newest residents with baptism banners, to grieve the loss of neighbors and friends and family. A church building represents community within a community, the very soul of small town life.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Storm rips through my hometown of Vesta July 2, 2011

WHENEVER ONE of my siblings calls saying, “I just want you to know Mom is OK, but…,” I prepare myself mentally for her latest health crises.

But Friday evening when my sister Lanae reached me via cell phone while my husband and I were en route to a party near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, the news was totally unexpected.

My hometown of Vesta in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota had been struck by straight-line winds.

While my mom’s house—once the retirement home of my paternal grandparents—had gone apparently unscathed, other structures in town were damaged. But at least my mother and aunts and uncles and a niece were safe.

In my sister’s early report, which came second-hand via relatives in the area, she shared that half the roof was ripped off our home church, St. John’s Lutheran. Hours later, after arriving home from the party, I found photos in my email in-box of the storm’s destruction. I nearly broke down and cried when I saw my home church with the partially missing roof.

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Vesta with the roof half ripped off during the Friday evening storm.

The images also showed damage to the grain elevator and bins in Vesta and trees down on the home place half a mile from town.

Damage to one of the grain bins at the local elevator.

The grain elevator complex, the visual defining landmark in the farming community of Vesta, was ravaged by winds. You'll see the damage near the top of the old grain elevator.

A close-up of the damage wrought upon the old elevator.

Another shot showing some of the debris and damage at the elevator complex.

The wind toppled trees on the farm where I grew up a half mile south of Vesta.

During that phone conversation with my sister, as my husband and I drove along the gravel road toward the gathering with friends, I wanted nothing more than to turn around, pack our suitcase and drive to Vesta 2 ½ hours away.

That’s exactly how I felt more than three decades ago when I lived in Gaylord and the farm where I grew up was hit by a tornado, taking down a silo and tossing grain wagons around the field.

But on this Friday evening, with storms rolling in from the west, I knew this was not practical. I would need to rely on my siblings to keep me informed. My middle brother, who lives in Lamberton some 25 miles away, was on his way to Vesta. I called my two daughters to tell them about the storm.

I wanted so much, though, to also speak with my mom. I needed the comfort of hearing her voice. I wanted to learn about her storm experience. But the phone lines were down in Vesta. Even though Mom owns a cell phone, I doubt she remembers how to use it. She’s never quite adjusted to technology.

And so now it’s Saturday morning and I am exhausted after a night of tossing and turning. Storms do that to me.

Thoughts of my home church—where I was married and attended the funerals of my father, Grandma Kletscher, Grandpa Bode and Uncle Mike—churned through my mind. I worried about where congregants will worship, whether the interior of the church was damaged, if the church, my home church, can be repaired.

I hope today to get some answers and, if I do, I’ll pass that information along to you.

I’ll also share images I shot last night of the storm clouds hanging dark and ominous over the farm site where we gathered with friends for an early Fourth of July celebration.

Nature provided the fireworks—lightning bolt after lightning bolt zig-zagging horizontally across the forbidding sky for hours. Except for some wind and rain, our area escaped the storm that ravaged Vesta and Marshall and other communities to the west.

IF YOU HAVE STORM stories to share from last evening, please submit a comment. KLGR Radio in Redwood Falls is this morning reporting winds of up to 100 mph in Redwood County and the sightings of possible funnel clouds. Click here to read that news report.

FOR THOSE OF YOU UNFAMILIAR with southwestern Minnesota, Vesta sits along State Highway 19 half way between Redwood Falls and Marshall.

Photos courtesy of Brian and Vicki.

©  Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling