By Cheryl Magness
On Sept. 19, as the members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Beecher, Ill., were enjoying their annual Oktoberfest picnic on the church grounds, someone noticed flames coming from the church steeple. Local fire department personnel were already on the scene, having been summoned earlier due to medical concerns about an attendee at the picnic. In short order, the church was evacuated, and additional firefighters were called. Despite the efforts of emergency responders, who came from more than 30 nearby municipalities, St. Paul’s quickly burned to the ground, a total loss of the building and most of its contents. No one was hurt.
Earlier that day, the Rev. Michael Stein, St. Paul’s pastor, had preached on Mark 9:30–37, in which Jesus tells His disciples that He will be killed and, after three days, rise. Mark reports that the disciples “did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.”
With no idea of what the day would bring, Stein told his congregation that God has commanded His people not to be afraid to ask Him for answers but to call out to Him at all times. Stein quoted Psalm 50:15, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you,” and highlighted the Second Commandment and its meaning in Luther’s Small Catechism.
“God has commanded us … to use His very name to call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks,” Stein said. “Prayer is a believer crying out to God, His Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ is our mediator. Through Him we draw near to God in confidence and trust.”
It is that confidence and trust in the face of enormous loss that will sustain the congregation of St. Paul’s. According to the Kankakee, Ill., newspaper, the Daily Journal, the church was started in 1862 by a small group of German Lutherans who first met in a private home and then moved to a public school. Then, in 1865, “about 20 families — along with then pastor Rev. Gustav Polack — founded St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. The group acquired 11 acres of land, half donated by a Mr. Busse and the other half purchased for $80. Total construction cost was $1,700 and the parsonage was built in 1879 for $1,250. In 1879, a cornerstone was added to serve the growing membership.”
Multiple outlets have noted that the church was featured in a scene in the 2002 film, “Road to Perdition.”
In addition to the church and its contents, Stein’s office, including his personal library, was destroyed in the blaze. The church’s official documents and historic records were stored in a safe in his office, and while he has not been able to get close enough to open the safe, he can see it standing and is hopeful the contents survived. In the hours after the fire died down, the communion flagon and chalice were recovered, along with a charred page from a hymnal.
The cause of the fire has not yet been identified. At this writing, the fire department is still preventing anyone from going on the site. Over the next few weeks, the cause of the fire will be investigated, and the process of filing an insurance claim will begin.
On Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 5:30 p.m., St. Paul’s will hold a service on the church grounds. The Rev. Allan Buss, president of the LCMS Northern Illinois District, said it would be an opportunity “to gather around God’s Word and His promises, to shed a few tears — again — and to lament. We know how to lament, but we lament in Jesus and His promises.”
Referring to the mural above St. Paul’s altar, a painting of the resurrected Christ, Buss said, “The mural didn’t survive, but the risen Christ and His people will survive. It has been beautiful for me as the district president … to see brothers and sisters in Christ rally around Christians with trouble. There has been ongoing contact from the Synod, the community, and fellow pastors and congregations. This is the church at its best. We often see the church disappoint us, but at times like this we see the church being the church.”
Stein has served at St. Paul’s for a little over a year, having been called to the congregation after his graduation from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 2020. He and his wife, Jo, have five children ages 5 to 18. The Steins have enjoyed getting to know the community of Beecher, a small town south of Chicago, over the past year.
“It’s mostly farmland here,” Stein said, “but if you drive about 15 minutes north, you hit the city.” St. Paul’s typically has about 50 people in worship on Sunday. “We have several members who have lived in Beecher and attended St. Paul’s all their lives,” Stein said. “They were baptized and got married in this church. To lose this part of their history is extremely difficult.”
Long-term arrangements for holding worship are still being made (“We’ve had many offers of help from nearby congregations,” Stein said), but on Sept. 26, one week after the fire, St. Paul’s will hold its regular Sunday worship outdoors on the church grounds near what is left of their building. “The weather forecast looks beautiful,” Stein said. “It will be another opportunity for us to gather together and grieve as a congregation.”
Asked what he will say to his parishioners, Stein answered, “I will tell them, ‘Look around you. Do you see these faces? That’s the church, the Body of Christ. Our building may be gone, but we are still the church, and Christ is still with us.”
Stein added that he and the people of St. Paul’s deeply appreciate the support they have received from not only the local community but people around the country. “I echo President Buss when he says this is the church at its best,” Stein said. “‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together’” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Posted on Sept. 22, 2021