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Kewanee church loses historic records in fire

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A congregation used to helping others now needs help itself. That's after a Sunday night fire in Kewanee that leaves parishoners without a place to worship.

A neighbor reported the fire at Zion Lutheran Church just before 10 p.m. on Sunday night. Firefighters spent several hours at the scene, keeping a bad situation from getting worse.

About 12 hours later, the church's pastor, Rev. David Schweppe, recalled what he saw at the scene.

"Just all smoke," he remembered. "Basically billowing out of the sides there."

More than a century of memories went up in smoke. The church dates back to the 1870's with its Swedish roots. It's been in the current building since 1958.

"It's quite a shock to have this happen," said Del Skoglund, chairman of Zion's property committee.

With investigators back at the scene on Monday, it looks like the fire started in the attic. That's where it spread into church offices, causing extensive damage.

It's too early to say what caused the fire or offer a dollar amount on the damage.

Charred documents on the grass become a painful memory on display. Despite insurance, some things are impossible to replace.

"This is devastating," Rev. Schweppe said. "But the people of this congregation, we'll make it through."

Firefighters successfully tangled with challenging conditions to save the church. But the fire likely destroyed more than 140 years of church records and sheet music. It also claimed Rev. Schweppe's theology books and sermon notes.

"We had to evacuate them off the roof eventually because it got too soft up there," said Kewanee Fire Chief Paul Schaecher. "The stability of the roof was in question."

Inside the church, which did receive some smoke and water damage, a sign sends a powerful message. The request for prayers will be important as the Zion congregation picks up the pieces.

"It's a struggle," Rev. Schweppe concluded. "It will be difficult. But we, how do they put it, we'll overcome."

Neighboring churches already are stepping up to help Zion Lutheran Church overcome during renovations.