NORTH DAKOTA: Fire destroys St. James’ Episcopal Church

By Lynette Wilson and Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jul 26, 2012

A July 25 nighttime fire destroys St. James Church in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Editors’ note: Story updated at 9:45 a.m. July 27 to add complete information about July 29 Eucharist.

[Episcopal News Service] A July 25 nighttime fire has destroyed St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

“At 10 p.m. Central Time a parishioner who lives across the road from St. James’ saw that there was smoke and fire coming from the church,” said the Rev. Canon John Floberg, who has served as St. James’ rector for 21 years and is canon missioner for native ministry in the Diocese of North Dakota. “Flames spread quickly through the parish hall to the church itself, and by quarter of eleven the whole structure was engulfed in flames. It’s all ash today.”

July 25 is a major feast day on the Episcopal Church calendar; it is the day it commemorates St. James the Apostle.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, said Floberg, adding that the church was a wooden structure and at least the second church built on that site.

“I feel like I lost a family member. Very sad,” the Rev. Terry Star, a deacon who serves the Standing Rock Episcopal Community and is a member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council, said on his Facebook wall early July 26.

Star grew up at St. James’ and has served the congregation in the past.

St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, before a fire destroyed the property on July 25.

St. James’ congregation was established in 1890 in Cannon Ball, which is part of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, and has been home to generations of Episcopalians, Floberg said.

Cannon Ball, in the south central part of the state, was the first place the Episcopal Church was established on the North Dakota reservation. Three other congregations trace their roots to St. James, according to the diocesan website. Services there include hymns in the Dakota language.

“It’s a family church,” Floberg said, adding that there are about 250 members in a community of 800 people where half the population is under the age of 20. “So last night and today we’ve been dealing with the grief that people have over losing the building that has always been the building that they have called their church.”

North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith will gather with the St. James community at noon on Sunday, July 29, for Holy Eucharist at the site of the destroyed church.

Meanwhile, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fargo, in eastern North Dakota, echoed the diocese’s call for prayers for St. James and announced that it would take up a collection for the congregation on July 29.

Sioux County, where Cannon Ball is located, is one of the poorest counties in North Dakota and among the top ten poorest in the nation, Floberg said. The county has a population of about 4,200 people spread over about 1,100 square miles, all of it reservation land. Just more than 47 percent of those people lived below the poverty line during the period from 2006 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Floberg said that when the church was built, the bishop at the time wanted the congregation to build a stone structure that could withstand the harsh winds, but the people of St. James’ didn’t have the money.

“Our congregation serves in one of North Dakota’s toughest towns,” St. James says in its listing on the diocesan website. “Addiction to alcohol and unemployment are both very high. But we aren’t going to give up. The church has been with us for almost 115 years and is important to us and our community.”

— Lynette Wilson and the Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg are editors/reporters for the Episcopal News Service.

Comments (11)

  1. Gwen Homer says:

    I am so sorry for all of my friends who live in Cannonball and the many parishioners at St. James. I too have many wonderful summer memories of St. James and the welcoming community it serves. I pray that the funds are raised to rebuild. Buildings can be remade, lives cannot. The fact that no one was injured is a great relief and I am thankful.

  2. Deacon Ashley Cook says:

    God be with you and rebuild your hearts and minds as we the Body help you rebuild the church. Peace of God, Deacon Ashley/Diocese of Texas

  3. Lauren Balk says:

    The first time I laid eyes on St. James church was when I was a teenager, encountering one of the first transformational experiences of my life, leaving my own bubble of privilege and having the honor of being able to visit and work with people who have my respect to this day and beyond. The church was smaller than any I’d ever been in, but there was a great sense of peace and love within its walls, and though the structure may be gone, that peace will stay in my heart forever. I hope that it will be rebuilt soon, stronger than before so that the community will have a place to share and worship together.

  4. The Rev. Ann Fontaine says:

    Do you have a link for donations?

  5. John Gillespie says:

    My prayers are with you all. May God’s presence be felt with your church family, may you find a locaton to gather locally and the building be quickly rebuilt. Sincerely, John

  6. Judy Hoover says:

    Having lived through the loss of St Edward’s through fire, I have great sympathy and am so sorry for the congregation and it’s leadership. Prayers for all of you and hope that many will respond in support for the rebuilding of the church. It is very disorienting to everyone when a tragedy like this happens. Please know that God is with you and will continue to help you find the right path into the future.

  7. Deacon Don Leroux says:

    Our Prayers go with As you walk this path of sorrow know that your brothers and sisters in Christ from St. Paul’s, Gread Forks and The Church of The Good Shepherd, Lakota are with you in this time of trial and Need.

  8. Frankie Jay BraveBull says:

    I remember my dad, Frank “Punchy” BraveBull, getting me and my brother all dressed up to go to this church. We were just young boys back then but the memories I hold in my heart about this old church will never be forgotten.

  9. Deacon Charles Nelson says:

    I regard North Dakota as my spiritual birthplace. The people and the land will always have a sacred place in my heart. The decades of the sixties thru the nineties when I lived and served in North Dakota are filled with so many wonderful memories. I remember St. James from several visits there and at many diocesan functions I met so many of the saints that lived and served there.

    I was serving as deacon at Gethsemane in Fargo during the time of that fire which too was a tragedy but we rose up from the ashes as I believe the people of St. James will do also.

    Julian of Norwich reminds us:
    I saw that God is to us everything that is good and comfortable for us: God is our clothing that for love wraps us, clasps us, and all encloses us for tender love, that God may never leave us; being to us all-thing that is good, as to my understanding.

  10. Mary Louise Lyons says:

    I was happy to access the “donations” link and specify my humble contributution in support of your faith! “Don’t stop. Keep going!”

  11. Jane Weaver says:

    My mother is the child of a Standing Rock woman, and grew up here and attended St. James. I first visited at the Centennial celebration before the town of Shields burned in a wildfire. My mother will be 97 this year, and has expressed a desire to be buried with her family at St. James when that time comes. She wishes to travel there this summer, if she is able, to visit her family’s graves. She told me the church had burned, and I am delighted to read that it may have been rebuilt.

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