Beecher fire: St. Paul's Lutheran pastor vows to rebuild after 156-year-old church burns to ground

BEECHER, Ill. (WLS) -- A historic church in south suburban Beecher that was once featured on the big screen has been reduced to ashes after a devastating fire.

The acrid smell hung in the air Monday as the burned remnants of Saint Paul's Lutheran Church puffed smoke. The 156-year-old bastion of the Lutheran Church in the far south suburbs has been a beacon for generations.

Parishioners were taking part in an Oktoberfest celebration Sunday in a tent in the parking lot when someone noticed the church had caught fire. Some people were still in the church as well. The pastor was attending to a parishioner at the time.

"Yeah, it is devastating - the 150 years of the weddings and the funerals and the baptisms and all of that are gone - but the church still stands, the people, we still have our folk and our faith," said Rev. Michael Stein, head pastor at St. Paul's.

Witnesses said the church burned to the ground in a matter of hours. A regional alarm went out and fire crews from 31 municipalities responded.

Fire officials said it took 91,000 gallons of water to strike the fire - no easy feat considering the nearest hydrant was a mile away, so firefighters had to bring in their own water.

The institution had been featured in the Hollywood film "Road to Perdition," but it was clear pretty much instantly that the building wasn't going to be saved. A few symbols of the church survived, including a chalice and a cross.

"It is heartbreaking, it truly is, because I love this church," parishioner Jennifer Maehl said. "Oh I love the picturesque, the beauty of this building actually calmed my soul. It was very important to my life, to tell you the truth."

In the smoldering ashes, leaders see symbolism - and the chance to use their faith to rebuild.

"We'll continue, right? This isn't the end of the chapter. It is a dark chapter, and a sad one, and we mourn it and we grieve it... but we still look to Christ and we find that hope to go on," Stein said.

And as fire crews surveyed the damage in the shadow of monuments harkening back to the long origins of this place, the fire chief regretted not being able to do more.

"It's a pride thing. We don't like to say that we were defeated. We take great pride in providing a top-notch service to our community," Beecher Fire Chief Joseph Falaschetti Jr. said.

Luckily, no one was injured in the fire.
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