A church whose congregation dates back 144 years caught fire over the weekend in rural western Minnesota during a thunderstorm and was destroyed, authorities said.

Bethel Lutheran Church caught fire early Saturday evening about 11 miles south of Battle Lake and "began to collapse before the fire was totally extinguished," read a statement from the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office.

No injuries were reported.

Authorities have yet to say what ignited the blaze, but the Rev. Todd Hylden said the stormy weather is suspected.

"Right now, it looks like lightning," said Hylden, whose church has roughly 150 members. "Thunderstorms came through, and fire started right near the steeple. Those who came by quickly after reported they heard a loud bang."

There were thunderstorms with lightning in the area not long before the flames were spotted and reported to fire officials, according to the National Weather Service.

Numerous fire departments send crews to the scene, 34246 140th St., with the first arriving to see the church already "fully engulfed in flames," the statement read.

Undaunted, worship services scheduled for late Sunday morning went as intended in the parking lot next to the charred rubble of the church, whose congregation was formed in 1876, Hylden said.

"We've got to keep going," said Hylden, whose congregation is associated with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, based in suburban Detroit.

"The irony is that it was the first time we were going to meet since this [state-imposed] shutdown got implemented" in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, he said.

Hylden said the 40 to 50 in attendance faced where the church had stood during the service. Men, woman and children wept.

"I asked, 'What are you feeling right now? Just feel free to answer, speak up,' " Hylden said. "A lot of folks did: numb, empty, confused, or thanks for the wonderful memories."

Hylden said that while much of what's inside the church can be replaced, worshipers are saddened to learned that confirmation class photos dating back many decades were lost.

The pastor is hearing that "for the most part, people want to rebuild" at the same site.

The congregation also lost its church to fire in the 1910s or '20s, Hylden said. The church building that just burned was built on a new foundation in roughly the same location, he said.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482