25 years after a tornado, a rural church continues to thrive

Published: Apr. 29, 2021 at 10:12 AM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - On Wedneday, May 8, 1996, a tornado hit St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in rural Gilead. It was destroyed. Now the church has a new home, and is sharing stories of faith and perseverance.

The bell is still ringing at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Gilead. “God is still leading these people here in this location,” church pastor Kristine Hileman said. It was at the church’s original location, a few miles southwest of town, where a tornado hit hard.

Carol Krueger was living in Omaha at the time, and remembers hearing the news. She later arrived on the scene to take pictures of the damage. “There was a backhoe, tearing apart some of the structure,” Krueger said. “I just remember the sound of the cracking wood, and just thinking what that must have sounded like the night of the tornado, when the whole church would have fallen over.”

Church member Charles Fangmeier was one of the first on scene that night. “From a short distance I could see there was a Harvestore down by the church. It was blown down,” Fangmeier said. “There were broken light poles. And, at the crest of the hill, no church. The picture was devastating. The church was was leveled. It was unbelievable.”

Not everything was destroyed. The altar, pulpit and baptismal font were dirty, but intact. “You know, a tornado destroys things, and tears things up,” Fangmeier said. “The baptismal font was laying there, the beak was gone off the dove, but it was alarming that all three items were saved, considering the damage to the rest of the church.” The altar has a long history, and was built by a man who came from Germany named August Fangmeier. “He built in 10 different churches in the area,” church member Charlotte Heller said. “They were built with a pocket knife, a handsaw, a hammer and a paintbrush.”

The fact that the altar survived, along with the pulpit and baptismal font, is just the beginning of the many events that happened surrounding the tornado, that church members call “miracles.” “The day the tornado hit, if it had been a day before, they had a congregational meeting, and there were probably 100 people in the church at that time,” Heller said. “If it would have happened the next day, we were going to have a women’s salad supper in the church, and there would have been 100 women in the basement. There would have been absolutely no place for us to go. Our choir was practicing, but for some reason we practiced an hour earlier than we normally do. If it had been our regular time, we would have been in the church at the time the tornado hit.”

Church members say a nice white church at the top of the hill in Gilead was sitting empty at the time of the tornado. It was owned by by the Catholic church, but was not being used. It ended up becoming the next home for the congregation. Inside the current church, there are reminders from the tornado devastation. Ronald Hellbusch made a cross out of stained glass window pieces he found at the tornado site. “The center of the cross is Martin Luther’s symbol for Christ,” Hellbusch said. “The outside, the little pinwheel, was my attempt at replicating a tornado. All of the pieces that make up the pinwheel, those are from the old church windows.” The artist says the cross tells a story. “With Christ at the center of our lives, we can weather the storms,” Hellbusch said.

After all the devastation, the congregation continues to move ahead. “I think the tornado and its aftermath increased their time of working together, accomplishing together, having a goal, and not dying as a small rural congregation,” Hileman said. “Instead, they are living on and thriving.”

25 years later, the bell is still ringing at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

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