BEECHER, Ill. - A south suburban congregation promises to rise from the ashes after their historic church burned to the ground on Sunday.
The blaze happened as members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Beecher gathered for an Oktoberfest celebration.
"All my life. I was born here, baptized here, lived here all my life," said 87-year-old Norman Kregel. He was joined by dozens of stunned parishioners of St. Paul’s who gathered to seek comfort and express shock over the loss of their historic church.
"150 years of heritage, weddings, anniversaries, baptisms, confirmations — that in a matter of hours was just lost," said Pastor Michael Stein.
About 100 people were gathered Sunday afternoon celebrating Oktoberfest when smoke started pouring out of the steeple. The nearest fire hydrant is a mile away and by the time fire engines arrived with water, it was too late. Luckily, no one was hurt, although one firefighter was overcome by heat exhaustion.
Saint Paul’s was built in 1870 by the German farmers who settled the area. It was a simple wooden church with a balcony, giant mural behind the altar and a pipe organ from 1900 that was still playing hymns on Sunday.
It was such a beautiful country church that it was used in the movie "Road to Perdition," with actor Tom Hanks filming scenes there in 2002.
Now, parishioners are combing through the rubble trying to salvage historic artifacts, like a metal cross that hung over the front door, found by parishioner Scott Hoffmeyer.
"I thought I’d grab it and when they rebuild, maybe I’ll put it on the new one," Hoffmeyer said.
To their amazement, they also found the silver chalice used for Communion.
"The building is gone but the church remains," said Pastor Stein. "The people, we are the church, the body of Christ. And through this devastating tragic event, we’ll grow stronger."
A fund has been set up to assist with the loss. Donations can be mailed or dropped off at the First Community Bank & Trust in Beecher and Peotone.
Donations can also be given online through Lutheran Church Charities.