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Fiftieth Anniversary of the Mankato Church Fire

What’s New With YOU?
Updates from congregations around the church of the Lutheran Confession

But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, And He who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine. When you
pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, Nor shall the flame scorch you. For I
am the Lord your God, The Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
(Isaiah 43:1-3)

There was no plan to build a new church. In the early morning hours of July 4, 1971, lightning struck one of the two distinctive steeples of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mankato, Minnesota. The fire that followed engulfed the beautiful sanctuary. By the time the sun began to dawn, the roof had collapsed and the bells that would have been ringing to mark the beginning of worship that morning were trapped in rubble in the basement.

In one night, the Lord had taken the third edition (built in 1913) of Immanuel by fire and laid the responsibility upon the members of that church to build a fourth sanctuary. Immediate steps were taken to secure temporary quarters in which to hold services. On the very morning of the fire, a service was held at the Mankato High School auditorium. Services were held in that auditorium each Sunday thereafter until October 22, 1972, when the members of Immanuel returned to their church building even though it was not quite complete.

On September 1, 1971, the congregation approved a plan by Mr. Richard Rice, an architect in Mankato, to rebuild the church. The plan retained the old basement, the old walls, and the towers. On October 7, 1971, the first workmen appeared on the scene to begin the huge task of clearing the burned rubble. We acknowledge the many Immanuel members, young and old, men and women, who took part in the rough and dirty work of salvaging and clearing the mountain of rubble, so that they could save what could be saved. Work had to be done to protect the furnace from the weather so that classes could still be held in the brand-new attached school building. Many members at that time remember cold and dirty people chipping mortar from frozen brick, shoveling ashes, and cleaning out nails from joists that were to be reused. This was indeed a labor of love—they could have no other reason for doing what they did.

As you come up the steps into the church from Second Street, you will find on the right two date stones. The top one marks the work that was done in 1971-1972 in reconstructing the church. Below that is a large date stone which commemorates the building of the first church on this property. On the northwest corner of the large tower, you will find the date stone of the church that burned. It is indeed unusual to have three date stones in one building. The 1884 date stone marks the confessional position that Immanuel Congregation took in a period of unionism. The letters U.A.C. stand there as a public acknowledgment that this congregation held to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession. The other date stones, 1913 and 1972, indicate that the Lord has been with this congregation in preserving this confessional position by providing four houses of worship on this corner.

As you look above the altar, you see a cross that catches the eyes of all who worship here. It is of special interest because the timbers from which this cross was made were in the 1913 church. Those who saw the fire-damaged building will remember the huge 12×12 timbers that ran from one steel truss to another, high in the sky. It is from these charred purlins that our cross has been made. It stands there as a constant reminder to us of the heartache we experienced when our precious building burned, but especially of God’s continuing love to us in Jesus Christ, in spite of all earthly changes.

We praise and thank God for the work that He accomplished through His people of rebuilding this marvelous house of worship so that we too may hear of His wonderful grace and mercy in sending His Son Jesus Christ to suffer and die to take away all of our sins. May this building ever be a testament to the love of our great Savior, Immanuel, “God with us.”

Joseph Naumann is associate pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Mankato, Minnesota. His article is adapted from a 1972 commemorative bulletin entitled “From Ashes to Honor.”