A Minnesota congregation will continue to worship and provide ministry in the Duluth area, just not in its own facility – at least not for a while.
Westminster Presbyterian Church in Duluth, located northeast of Minneapolis/St. Paul along Lake Superior in eastern Minnesota near the Wisconsin border, is being demolished after floodwaters from last summer left the church building unusable.
A ruptured culvert under the church allowed 5 feet of water to fill the downstairs area of the Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation’s building, forcing members to seek alternative places of worship.
“We’ve had over a year for this to sink in,” said Paul Rigstad, a member of the congregation since 1949 and a former elder in the church. “We recognize (demolition) is necessary, that it has to come down, but it’s still a pretty sad event. There definitely are a lot of memories in there, but it’s just a building. God will provide something else.”
Tami Abramson, a current elder and member of Westminster for more than 30 years, said losing the current church facility, built in 1961, has been a time of sorrow and grief for members, especially those who helped bring it to fruition more than 50 years ago.
“It’s been like a grieving process for so many because most of our people helped build it,” Abramson said of the approximately 75-member congregation. “This has truly been a part of their lives. They drew the plans, laid the brick, painted the walls. To see it ruined and then have to come down has been a difficult process for this congregation to come to a point of moving forward.
“There is definitely a sadness in accepting that this place so many have called home is no longer there. But we are still the body of Christ as a congregation.”
Westminster was founded in 1889. The demolition of the church building, which started Aug. 13 and will continue until the site is cleared and developed into a green space for the city, was necessitated by heavy flooding in June 2012.
Duluth is built on a hill some 600 feet or so above Lake Superior, Rigstad explained, and a number of rivers and streams flow to the lake. One of those happened to flow under the church through a culvert. When the city received 10 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, the old culvert could not withstand the amount of water flowing through, rupturing and spewing its contents inside the church.
The water level rose to some 5 feet in height, buckling the flooring and destroying pretty much everything on the church’s lower level. Rigstad said the upstairs portion of the church was usable, but the kitchen, bathrooms, Sunday school classes and furnaces downstairs along with all the electrical wiring were destroyed.
Forensic and structural engineers assessed the damage and determined the facility could not be salvaged, in spite of the main level still being functional.
Just two years earlier, the church suffered damage to its downstairs area from the storm sewer system. That damage, not nearly as extensive, was covered by insurance and repaired. This natural disaster was not covered. Rigstad said the insurance company determined that the church was not covered for such an event.
“The policy excluded that type of disaster,” he said.
The despair over losing their place of worship was tempered for members not long after the church building was deemed a loss when a local cremation society allowed the congregation to gather in its chapel for Sunday worship services at no cost for some six months.
Abramson added, “We stayed there six months. It was only a building, but it was a place to worship, and we brought joy to it. It gave us a safe place to be during a horrifically sad time for our congregation.”
Most recently, Westminster’s members have been able to rent space at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, just four blocks from their former home. They have ample room for services, meetings and other activities in the life of the church.
Abramson said the way the Lutheran church welcomed the Westminster congregation was simply an example of God watching over His flock.
“This has been a positive experience of people finding us and helping out in a difficult time. It shows that God is always around us,” she said.
Not long after the revelation there was no insurance coverage, there was a declaration that the flooding in the Duluth area was a major disaster event, and grant funding was made available by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. That funding allowed the City of Duluth to purchase the church property, take ownership and handle the demolition.
“God certainly provided a settlement with the city far beyond what we ever anticipated,” Rigstad said. “Now we have to figure out how to be good stewards of that.”
Rigstad said the property is adjacent to the local high school, and the site is not supposed to be used for the development of any structures. Abramson said her hope is that it will be developed into an area similar to a park.
Before the demolition of the church building commenced, Westminster had an auction, selling pews, stained glass windows, the communion table, pulpit, sound equipment and other items. Rigstad said proceeds from that auction have not been earmarked for any specific use yet, but they may go toward the construction of a new facility if that is what the Lord leads the congregation to pursue in the future.
Despite the lack of their own facility, members of Westminster continue to be faithful in their attendance and stewardship as the congregation enters a time of prayer and discernment regarding its future.
“There’s no rush to do something. We have a good relationship with the Lutherans,” Rigstad said, noting that Wesminster is part of a four-church Presbyterian parish with congregations from Cloquet, Carlton and Wrenshall. While separate entities they share pastoral leadership, so decisions made by the Wesminster congregation could have an impact on the other three members of the parish.
“We’re still in that discernment stage as our session looks at possibilities for the future,” Rigstad continued. “We know God will provide something.”
Abramson said the church body has been blessed despite the hardships faced with the loss of its place of worship.
“It’s odd, but this has been a blessing in that it’s so evident God is with us and all around us,” Abramson said. “He has given us a time to heal and look to the future. He has given us space to gather and worship. He’s so good. He knows our timing better than we do. We just need to be patient and allow God to speak to us.”