After fire burns down Battle Lake church, community starts healing process

A couple hugs as they watch one of the spires on Bethel Lutheran Church be engulfed with flames on Saturday, June 6. Photo courtesy of Kathy Evavold

BATTLE LAKE, Minn. — A rural Otter Tail County church has stood tall through a fire, two world wars and two pandemics since it was built in the 1870s.

Bethel Lutheran Church, closed amid the spread of COVID-19, was set to reopen within the next few weeks.

However, another fire caused the church to go up in flames Saturday, June 6. Firefighters from nearby Dalton believe it was caused by a lightning strike.

The following morning, a warm and windy one, the remains of the church stood on top of the hill, overlooking members of the community as they pulled in for a parking lot worship service.

Todd Hylden, the church's pastor, hasn't led a service at Bethel for nearly three months, but losing the church overnight led to a gain of community support.


"It's hard to look (at the church), but we needed to gather together and be together as a church family," said Melissa Rocholl, who's been going to the church for over 40 years.

Todd Hylden, the pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in Battle Lake, Minn., gives a sermon to members of the community during a parking lot worship service outside the church Sunday, June 7. Tanner Robinson / WDAY

During the service, songs were sung and encouraging words were said during the sermon, as generations of families who've gone to the church for years started to spiritually heal.

"This is a place you grew up, a place you came every Sunday, a place where your children grew up in the same place you did," said Ashley Hokanson, another longtime church member. "It's hard to grasp."

As people took a look at the damage both inside and outside, it reminded them of the memories they had in the more-than-a-century old church.

"To look at it and know that it's the end of a historical building, it could be the beginning of a new era for this country church," said Jill Balgaard, who's a member of a neighboring church but came to Bethel's service on Sunday.

Even though it may take a while to rebuild from the ground up, church members are staying hopeful about pushing past this tragedy.


"(There's a) lot of memories, but we know that we the people are the church, so we'll be OK," Rocholl said.

Hylden said Bethel plans to have another parking lot service next Sunday, June 14.

Minnesota's state fire marshal will be on scene early this week to investigate.

Tanner Robinson is a producer for First News on WDAY-TV.
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