Fire destroys historic church in Iroquois County

Fire destroys historic church in Iroquois County

SCHWER — A day after a fire destroyed a 106-year-old church building in southern Iroquois County, the pastor said the church body will construct a new building on the site.

"The church building is a total loss," Pastor Matt Steendahl of St. John's Lutheran Church, in Schwer, wrote in an email. "Our congregation understands that the building we lost, although a great part of our heritage, was indeed just a building. No people were injured, so we are praising God that our congregation can continue proclaiming God's word."

Fire officials believe an electrical problem sparked the fire that gutted most of the building including the sanctuary, at 1812 E. 1130 N. Road, early Monday afternoon.

Frank Hines, chief of the Milford Fire Protection Agency, said firefighters were able to save the fellowship hall, on the church's north side. However, it suffered smoke and water damage.

About 50 people had attended a funeral service at the church and a dinner in the fellowship hall earlier that day, Hines said. Some were still in the fellowship hall when the fire broke out, but escaped without injury.

Schwer is an unincorporated area about 6 to 7 miles west of Milford. Hines said the hamlet consists of the church and about half a dozen houses.

The church was established on November 28, 1875, according to Steendahl. He said the building was constructed in 1907, and the basement, an annex, restrooms, an entry and fellowship hall were added later.

Firefighters received multiple 911 calls to the fire at 12:46 p.m. When they arrived, the steeple and sanctuary of the single-story wood-frame structure were fully engulfed in flames, Hines said.

"We don't expect any foul play," said Hines, who concluded the fire was electrical following his investigation.

"The people who were at the (funeral) service said they'd heard the organ make some weird sounds like the power was cut and then it came back on," Hines said. Later, "someone smelled smoke. They went up to the sanctuary and saw smoke at the base of the steeple. When they went outside, they saw it was completely involved."

Steendahl said some ladies were doing dishes in the kitchen when others noticed the fire.

"It was difficult to convince them to get out as they just wanted to finish the dishes," he said.

About 50 firefighters from Milford, Woodland, Sheldon, Wellington, Stockland, Watseka, Hoopeston, Cissna Park and Crescent City helped battle the blaze. Personnel from the Iroquois Memorial Hospital Ambulance service in Watseka were also on the scene.

Hines said they had the fire knocked down by 4 p.m., but stayed on the scene until about 8 p.m. making sure there were no flare-ups.

Hines added that there are no fire hydrants in the area, so firefighters had to haul water from Milford. He added that they got help from Mowrey Auction Co., which hauled water to the scene in a giant water tank on its semitrailer truck.

A damage estimate wasn't available.

Steendahl said he has served the congregation for a little more than seven years.

"It was heart-wrenching to watch as the building burned to the ground," he said. "It is unimaginable to think what it is like for those who were born into this congregation, baptized, confirmed, married and repeated the process with their own children to watch it all disappear.

"However, we are reminded again and again that the building is not what makes a church," he continued. "The people are what the church is all about, and we will pull together and start fresh, and we will continue to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord."

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