Smoke changed from dark blue-gray, to a sunrise-backlit yellow to bright white, as if a huge boiling cloud had settled Wednesday morning at the intersection of Sioux and Grand Island roads northwest of Shelton.
By the time Hub colleague Kim Schmidt and I arrived at Zion Lutheran Church, it was clear the house of worship was a total loss. Volunteer firefighters from Shelton, Gibbon, Wood River and Ravenna focused on containing and extinguishing the fire.
A “before” photo shows a white wooden church with a cross-topped steeple built in 1912 that was the spiritual home for a congregation organized in the mid-1880s.
Only the cross, installed last year, was saved. The steeple’s old cross has a permanent home near the entrance to the cemetery east of the church.
My role was to take photos and video for Wednesday afternoon website posting and Thursday publication. Kim took a few phone photos, interviewed congregation members sitting in pickups or standing in the church parking area and sent real-time information for the Hub website.
My heart broke for those folks as I watched the tragedy through my camera viewfinder.
I had met one of the lifelong Zion Lutheran members in 2014 when we were on Buffalo County’s Hero Flight to Washington, D.C. for Korean War veterans. I told him Wednesday that I understood a little bit of what they were feeling because I grew up in Pleasant View Christian Church, 11 miles southeast of Wilcox.
Remaining Pleasant View members decided in June 2014 it was time to close the doors of the small 1940s-era rectangular building (no steeple). It succumbed to a fire used as a practice burn for area volunteer firefighters, which was a better fate than letting a vacant building fall into disrepair.
Or to see a historic, still active church fall victim to an unplanned fire. Zion Lutheran’s first advent season service was scheduled for Wednesday night.
No matter what happens next, it always will be their church.
I went to Pleasant View only for Christmas Eve services and a few special events as an adult, but I felt its loss. The church, our nearby family farm, the Wilcox school and people associated with them were the center of my small world as a child.
So when you pray for Zion Lutheran’s current congregation, also remember other people with emotional and spiritual ties to the church, no matter where they live.
It’s important to avoid comments that might seem like “you’ll get over it” messages.
While it’s true there are other nearby churches, Lutheran or otherwise, Zion Lutheran members can attend this Sunday and for the foreseeable future, they don’t want to hear that said now.
It’s the same sensitivity needed when people lose immediate family members, friends, pets and any place strongly linked to memories.
A big hardship of getting older is seeing the loss list grow longer. You can move on as the only option, put such losses into perspective and embrace the joy of good memories, but you never get over it.
Seeing fewer chairs at holiday dinner tables, sending fewer birthday cards or driving past the empty Pleasant View church corner at Franklin County’s 23 and P roads make me sad.
People in the Zion Lutheran community will have many sad days ahead, especially those who drive through the intersection of Sioux and Grand Island roads for daily activities. It may be especially difficult to visit graves of family and church ancestors in the cemetery that now sits alone.