Lansing’s oldest church was reduced to ashes on Wednesday, January 24, 1945
One of the services a newspaper provides is to document history. And one of the benefits of a digital newspaper is the ability to make history accessible and searchable. The Lansing Journal has created a Lansing History category where we can digitally store community milestones and events. Readers are invited to submit questions and ideas for this series to [email protected].
By Marlene Cook
LANSING, Ill. (January 24, 2022) – It was a cold and blustery fourth Wednesday of January in 1945, twenty-four days into the new year. It was early in the morning, and nothing unusual was going on.
But suddenly the alarm at the local fire house called the firefighters to the corner of Ridge Road and Burnham Avenue. When they arrived they found the First Reformed Church of Lansing fully engulfed in flames.
A crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle, and though firemen poured water on the fire, the flames raged on. Eventually the steeple toppled to the ground, and spectators let out a cry.
The fire lapped downward, erasing the wooden structure board by board. The church had been built in 1897 and remodeled in 1925; now the home of Lansing’s oldest congregation was reduced to ashes.
Memories of members
Church member Bud Heintz (now deceased) was in Japan at the time of the fire as a member of the United States Air Force. Interviewed in 2011, Bud recalled, “I had heard that much of the water was used to save Slager’s gas station on the corner. The wind was so strong from the west that burning wood was flying over the cemetery and endangering the station.”
“The day after the fire I walked with my mother to see the damage,” church member Elaine Ooms McGrail remembered. “We were looking over the ashes when I spotted a little red chair. It was a chair we used in Sunday School. It was half burned.”
“I cried,” she continued after a pause, tearing up again.
Miracles in the ashes
It was obvious the church and everything in it was a total loss. But a miracle happened that day. During the clean-up, church member Russell Hook was clearing ashes when his shovel hit something solid. There, under 30 inches of ash in the basement level of the burned rubble, was the church’s large pulpit Bible. Not one page was missing. Today that Bible is on display in the front of the reconstructed church. It is encased in a glass cabinet with a typed reminder that “OTHER THINGS MAY BE DESTROYED AND FORGOTTEN BUT GOD’S WORD LIVES ON FOREVER!”
In addition, the church records had been taken home by Sam Kooy, the consistory clerk, and thus were saved from the fire. However, the cemetery records were lost. The only remaining account of those buried in the churchyard is the information engraved on tombstones. Those without tombstones and those whose remains are buried under the road or sidewalk remain known only to God. (Editor’s note: Marlene Cook spent time researching the First Church graveyard for her book, History and Mystery in First Church Graveyard.)
Another shining light in the shadow of tragedy was that the church had paid off its bank loan in early 1944, but had decided to continue a building fund. That fund now sat safe and secure in the bank. Church members had previously discussed the need for a new, larger facility. The fire now provided an opportunity to move forward with those plans.
Resuming church life
The evening after the fire the consistory met, determined to continue the church’s programs. Arrangements were quickly put in place. Sunday morning services were held at the Indiana Avenue School (where the Lansing Public Library now stands). Afternoon services were held at First Christian Reformed Church (now New Hope Church, 3642 Lake Street). The Christian Endeavor group met in the basement of the First Reformed Church parsonage, which was vacant while the church was without a pastor. Saturday morning Bible classes were held at First Methodist Church, down the road at 18420 Burnham.
An emergency congregational meeting was held at Grace Church (2740 Indiana Avenue) on January 29, 1945. Church members approved an action to pursue a new church building on the same site. The consistory was authorized to hire an architect. Committees were established to handle finance, building, organ, furnishings, and dedication. The congregants also decided to transfer the $18,500 from the insurance payment to the church building fund.
Then God answered another prayer. Reverend August Tellinghuisen accepted a call and was installed as First Reformed Church’s 11th pastor on July 26, 1945, ending a pastoral search that had begun in March of 1944.
Post-war building delays
The war in Europe had ended on May 17, 1945, but building materials remained scarce for several months. First Reformed Church awarded the general construction contract for their new building in July 1945, but it wasn’t until August that the necessary priority rating was received from Washington, D.C., allowing the acquisition of building supplies.
Finally, on November 17, 1945, the cornerstone of the new church building was laid. Church records indicate that inside the cornerstone are an English version of the Bible, a New Testament in the Dutch language, Psalms in Dutch, a history of the church, a Church Herald newsletter (the official publication of the Reformed Church in America at the time), lists of church families and church officers, a financial report, a bulletin of dedication, and a copy of the Hammond Times and the Lansing Journal.
Construction was completed in January of 1947, two years after the fire. A dedication service was scheduled but delayed because the church furniture had not yet arrived. When the ceremonies did finally take place in March, activities were scheduled over five days, including:
- March 26 – Appreciation Night
- March 27 – Community Night
- March 28 – Congregation Night
- March 30 – Consecration Sunday
(No dedication activities were scheduled for Saturday, March 29, 1947.)
The new structure was built in the Colonial Georgian architectural style with red Colonial brick and Bedford limestone trim. A tall steeple gave the building the distinction of being the tallest building in Lansing. A large illuminated cross on the east side of the building completed the new landmark look. The sanctuary with a balcony and choir loft would now be able to seat 800 people.
Total costs of the building and furnishings came to $150,000 in 1947. Only $50,000 was financed by the issuance of bonds, and all debt was liquidated by March 1953.
The historic landmark building still stands tall on the corner of Ridge Road and Burnham Avenue, and it continues to serve an active congregation under the name First Church PCA.