20 years gone

An arsonist robbed a FD congregation of its beloved landmark, but not its faith

-Messenger file photo
Fort Dodge firefighters pour water on St. Paul Lutheran Church the morning of May 13, 1999. The blaze destroyed the 113-year-old church.

Twenty years ago, devastated Lutherans watched as investigators picked through the rubble of what six days earlier had been their beloved church.

On Thursday, May 13, 1999, a brutal explosion triggered by internal pressure blew the doors off the 113-year-old brick landmark.

The doors landed across the street.

“It’s hard to believe it’s that long ago.”

Lillian Spengeler still lives across the street at 1224 Fourth Ave. S. Her late husband, Elton, was a teacher at the school. He was also the church organist and choir director.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Jenny Roe, of Fort Dodge, at left, along with Bailey Tokheim, of Eagle Grove, hold a picture of them that was taken at an evening prayer service on May 13, 1999, the day the church was destroyed in an arson fire.

“We woke up when the door of the church was blown out across the street,” she remembers. “It seemed like everything stood still.”

There was an eerie silence in her home, apparently because the power went out.

“Elton said the church is burning. I was thinking of all the things in the church and our quilting.”

The couple went downstairs to watch.

“People were already gathering and talking. It was unbelievable to see the church was actually burning.”

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Bailey Tokheim shows a bracelet made from a hymnal page that survived the May 13, 1999, arson fire.

Jenny Roe was 12 at the time. She is now an ER nurse at UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center. Her shock as she watched the church burn was recorded by a photographer from The Messenger.

“I grew up in that church. I went to school there from kindergarten through eighth grade. It was a huge part of my life. It was a beautiful place.”

The fire spread quickly through the basement and main floor of the 1886 structure, then raced up to the roof before lighting the steeple and its cross.

When it was over, all that remained was a shell. The roof, the steeple and the cross had fallen into that shell.

-Messenger file photo
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators talk with the Rev. Chris Schwanz as they gather arson evidence from the rubble.

The fire, they learned later, had been set.

It was the work of Kevin William Beck, a serial arsonist.

Beck had already been sentenced to seven years in prison in 1995 for causing $750,000 to a Mikos & Matt Furniture warehouse. He pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted burglary and third-degree arson for his role in the May 11, 1995, fire.

At the time, he had previous arson conviction for fires he set in 1988 and 1989, according to Messenger records. His 1989 conviction for starting a fire at Sparky’s Auction service, Fort Dodge, carried a 10-year maximum sentence.

-Messenger file photo
Police tape keeps the curious away from the remains of the building during the wait for investigators to arrive.

“If that stuff had been admissible, we would have had a trial or at least a tougher plea,” Bob Hanson, assistant Webster County attorney, said at the time. He was referring to the two previous arson fires.

Wally Mikos, owner of Mikos & Matt in 1995, said this: “I hope when he gets out he’ll be a better citizen.”

Beck got 20 years for the St. Paul arson.

In January this year, while he was living in Burlington and on supervised release, Beck, who is now 51, failed a drug test and that supervised release was revoked. He was sentenced to another 11 months.

At the time of his conviction for the St. Paul fire, Beck offered an apology for his choices.

-Messenger file photo
Then-Fort Dodge Fire Chief Jerry Eslick comforts St. Paul Lutheran Church member Mike Williamson as the 113-year-old church burned to the ground on May 13, 1999.

“I feel really bad about what happened last year in May,” he said in a written statement that was read during his sentencing hearing in federal court in Sioux City on April 25, 2000. “I’m very sorry for putting my family and my community through the pain and heartache.”

But that couldn’t bring the old church back.

Without their beloved historic church, the St. Paul congregation had no choice but to find its way forward.

The last song played on the organ, according to Messenger records, was “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

That meant faith would be more crucial than ever.

“This is a reminder that a church is not just bricks and mortar,” St. Paul’s the Rev. Chris Schwanz said in the immediate wake of the blaze. “It’s the people.”

Just a day before the fire, confirmation robes had been handed out in anticipation of the upcoming Sunday ceremony.

That took place at St. Olaf Lutheran Church.

Bailey Tokheim was 13 at the time. She remembers being at a prayer service, a photo of which appeared in The Messenger then.

“There were lots of tears of course,” she recalls. “We didn’t have school for a couple of days.”

Other churches rallied to help in any way they could.

But it was the St. Paul congregation that was tasked with carrying on.

Roe is still a member of the church.

“It’s kind of like a big family; it brought us all closer. It’s funny I can remember things from the church, but I can’t event remember what I did yesterday.”

The fire was on a Thursday, Spengeler recalls. The following Sunday was Ascension Day.

“It was Ascension Sunday. You celebrate with church. We did have a church service in the school parking lot.”

The sermon?

“We were reminded that the church is really the people, not the building.”

After the embers finally cooled and investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had finished their investigation, Roe remembers visiting the site where for more than a century the iconic church had stood.

“When it was safe to get closer we found pieces of stained glass and hymnal pages. It was crazy they made it through.”

Some people have keepsakes from that rubble. Tokheim has a bracelet made from a hymnal page.

On the flip side of the tragedy was the future.

“The old church had no air conditioning,” Spengeler recalls. “The biggest service was always at 8 a.m. People wanted to get away from the heat.”

From her home across the street, she watched as the new St. Paul rose above the ashes.

“I didn’t go in till it was dedicated. It felt like I was visiting someone.”

Eventually, though, it began to feel like home.

That Ascension Day, the Rev. Richard Kapfer, president of the Iowa District West of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and a St. Paul member, read from the Book of Acts.

Then he looked past the loss.

“I have a prediction: Some months from now, we will be walking into a new church. You’re going to look back and say, ‘Those were wonder-filled days. Those were the days when St. Paul came together and worked together.’

“This is for all of us not only a time to say farewell, but also for all of us to feel a tap on the shoulder and hear the Lord. ‘Listen. Come. Follow me.'”

-Messenger file photo
The fire left only a few heavily charred wood floor beams and charred rusting bits of metal. A few hymnal pages were found in the debris and saved by several church members, along with bits of the stained glass windows.

-Messenger file photo
Jenny Roe, then 12, at left, Nichole Groat and Bailey Tokheim (Cobb), then 13, pray during a special service held after the St. Paul fire.

-Messenger file photo
Allison Post and her daughter, Audra Marvin, then 8, weep as St. Paul Lutheran Church was consumed by the fire. Audra was a second-grade student at the church’s school.

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