The Rev. Eli Somers was putting away groceries at home Sunday evening when his phone rang. A member of his tiny congregation in Norwood Young America called with devastating news.
"The church is gone," the caller said.
Somers raced to the Church in the Maples United Methodist Church on E. Hill Street to find a fire roaring through the wood-frame building that had stood for nearly 150 years and destroying everything inside.
"Shocking. Unbelievable," he said Monday after assessing the damage. "The stained glass is even melted. That is how hot it was. I've never seen anything like it."
Crews from eight emergency departments raced to the church after calls came in shortly after 7 p.m., but by then it was too late. Flames were already shooting out the front entrance and smoke was billowing out the windows. The church had no fire alarms or sprinklers, so it's likely the blaze had been burning a long time before somebody spotted flames lapping out of the bell tower.
"It got a head start on us," said Norwood Young America Fire Chief Steve Zumberg. "It had been going for a while."
On Monday, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the State Fire Marshal's Office were at the site to sift through the charred remains to learn how the fire started. The answer may not come quickly, Zumberg said.
Healing for the church's 15 members, many of whom have been at the church for 20 to 30 years, will likely be slow, too.
This summer, the congregation called Somers as its senior pastor, and in September it celebrated its 160th anniversary. The church itself predates the building, which got a new roof and paint job within the past few months.
A few members had lingered after Sunday's 8 a.m. worship to put up the last of the Christmas decorations. No one was in the building at the time of the fire, and no one was hurt, Somers said.
Sunday's sermon was part of a series from the Old Testament preparing for the birth of Jesus, Somers said.
"This is not an easy thing," he said. "A majority of the [series'] focus is on the joy and hope that comes in the midst of the darkness. We will continue to build on that."
Somers said the bell that dates to the church's original building fell from the tower but survived. He said the congregation will make something from it.
As for the church's future, services will be held at its sister congregation, Arlington United Methodist Church, about 15 miles away. The Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church owns the Church in the Maples building and will decide its fate, Somers said.
Zumberg said the building likely would have to be torn down.
"We have lost a lost a valuable part of the community," he said.