Rising from the ashes: Fargo church celebrates 25 years in new home after fire
FARGO — Drive south along Fargo's 25th Street South just past a Starbucks on the corner of 32nd Avenue and you'll notice what looks like a grain elevator rising above the North Dakota prairie.
Look even closer to see what appears to be an attached white A-frame barn. However, the stained glass windows in the barn are a dead giveaway this isn't a farm at all.
For the past 25 years, this has been the worship home for the 350 members of Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral. This Sunday, May 20, the congregation will celebrate their silver anniversary of moving to the south fargo location after a fire destroyed their historic church near downtown in 1989.
Today's celebration is meant to be a reflection on grieving, planning and finally, healing.
In 1871, when the Northern Pacific Railroad announced its intention to cross the Red River between Moorhead and Fargo, Episcopalians weren't too far behind — holding their first worship service in a tent here in August 1872. That small tent was the birthplace of Gethsemane Cathedral, which by 1900 had built a permanent home at 204 Ninth St. S., not far from the Cass County Courthouse.
According to the North Dakota State University Archives, "the building was to have been a masonry structure, but budget cuts allowed only a red sandstone foundation with a frame construction. The structure held the distinction of being the only wooden Episcopal cathedral in the United States."
Using wood for the church would come back to haunt parishioners on Sept. 12, 1989, when fire quickly tore through the structure while workers attempted to remove paint with a blowtorch.
Dick Bailly, who started going to the church in 1950 when he was a first-grader, says it was a beautiful, sunny day when he noticed black smoke in the sky after leaving a meeting in downtown Fargo. He knew based on where the smoke was coming from that it could be Gethsemane burning, and he ran to find out for himself.
More than 30 years later, Bailly was ripe with emotion as he recounted his experience.
"One of the first things I saw was a fireman knocking out one of stained glass windows with an ax," he said, his eyes welling up with tears. "It felt like my heart was coming out of my chest. It was horrible. It's one of the most vivid memories of my whole life."
Margie Bailly, Dick's wife, said by the time she arrived on the scene after leaving her office in south Fargo, half the congregation seemed to be there.
"The memories just came sweeping over you. This can't be happening. This is where we did this, this is where I experienced that and yet it was happening and it was stunningly powerful," she said.
Before the day was over, the church was deemed a total loss.
Gethsemane Episcopal Dean Mark Strobel, who was working in Jamestown, N.D., at the time of the fire, said it's normal to feel intense grief when you lose your church.
"Churches on the one hand are just buildings, but they become our homes — sacramental spots," Strobel said. "So when you lose a building like that, you lose a part of yourself, your history so I think the grief was pretty profound."
The first Sunday after the fire, the congregation worshipped at the Fargo Civic Center downtown and tried to figure out what to do next. They decided at first to use the old Interstate Business College on South University Drive as a worship space.
After debate and discussion, they decided not to rebuild on the existing lot, in part because it was too small and parking was a challenge. So they went south and eventually picked the lot at 3600 25th St. S.
Years of meeting with architects followed. Strobel said congregation members wanted to acknowledge their surroundings.
"They wanted it to look like it belonged to the prairie," he said. "But they also wanted it to look like a church, so it has a cross shape. If you look at it from the sky, it looks like a cross from old Gothic architecture. In fact, the architect coined the term 'Prairie Gothic.'"
The design of the new building created more open areas and light than the previous space. Two courtyards provided an area for parishioners to gather outdoors.
"Our architects were from Texas, and we thought they were crazy to suggest that," Margie Bailly said. "We didn't think they understood the North Dakotan winter. But, you know, they were right. It's so nice to see that courtyard right when you walk in the door."
While the building was shiny and new, Gethsemane members were thrilled when they got to bring a few items from the old church, including pews, a bishop's chair and altar. In the gathering space, parishioners could sip on coffee while staring at a stained glass window that survived the fire.
Sunday's silver anniversary of the consecration of the new church on May 22, 1993, will most definitely be a remembrance of how far the church family has come after losing nearly everything in 1989 and surviving the sometimes painful process of building something new.
"Change is difficult, and in the middle of grief and loss, it's even harder," Margie Bailly said.
But it was easy to see now while taking a tour of the church with the Baillys and Strobel that Gethsemane has risen from the ashes and remains a firm foundation for its members.
"I know not everyone agrees, but this feels like the old church to me," Margie Bailly said. "The stained glass is so beautiful and it's like the building is just wrapping itself around me. I feel safe and overwhelmed with the beauty of this place."
If you go
What: Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral 25th anniversary consecration celebration
When: 9:30 a.m. Sunday, May 20
Where: 3600 25th St. S., Fargo
Info: Event is free and open to the public