Lester Park United Methodist Church withstands the tests of time

It was 4 a.m. on a blistering cold December morning. As the people slept peacefully in their beds, parishioners of the Lester Park United Methodist Church watched as bright orange and red flames quickly consumed their beloved place of worship. When the dust settled and the firemen returned to their families, the only job left to be done was to rebuild, which is exactly what these dedicated people did.

In 1889, two brothers, Arthur and Henry Brown, wanted to expand the Methodist religious outreach into the newly settled Lester Park area.

When A. Brown and H. Brown first approached Dr. C.H.S. Dunn of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Duluth on Dec. 6, 1885, their interest in expanding the Methodist church’s outreach was contagious. Soon, six other members were willing to go on record to get a great deal purchased and a building permit approved.

Upon the church’s completion, newly appointed Rev. S.S. Farley gave the first inaugural sermon on Dec. 7, 1890. However, just five years later, the church would experience its first fight with adversity. On April 23, 1895, a major fire consumed the entire structure.

Firemen fought the flames all night but were unable to stop the complete destruction of the building, according to a Duluth Weekly Herald article published on April 24, 1895. The church was completely burned, with repair costs totaling $4,500, which is roughly $116,342.74 in 2010, according to an inflation calculator.

Despite the hardship, members of the congregation pitched in and rebuilt the church on their own labor and money. Just eight months after the destructive fire, parishioners already had their church back up and running, and on Dec. 8, 1895, Rev. Robert Forbes would give the second dedicatory sermon in the church’s history.

The church would stand unharmed by nature for the next 29 years. However, two months before the 30-year anniversary of the first fire, history would repeat itself. On February 22, 1924, another destructive fire consumed the building and destroyed everything inside.

According to a Duluth Weekly Herald article published February 23, 1924, a major fire broke out in the basement. Firemen woke up Rev. Gilbert Curtis at 4 a.m. to alert him that the church was again on fire. The building would once again be a total loss. 

The total amount of damages would add up to $16,000, which amounted to $215,559.30 in 2012, according to an inflation calculator.

For the second time, members of the Lester Park UMC pitched in and donated labor and money to rebuild the church and have a place to worship again. Alice Wilson has been a member of this church since 1952, but her knowledge of the church’s history extends deeper than that.

“To me, it happened, and here we go," Wilson said. "Let’s pick ourselves back up and go again. We’re still that way today."

The church would be re-opened and rededicated for the third time just seven months after the second fire on Sept. 21, 1924. This time, the chief architect made the decision to use a brick exterior for a more sturdy structure, a decision that would save the church from a third fate.

On Sept. 5, 1949, the Lester Park UMC would experience its third destructive fire. According to a Duluth News Tribune article published on Sept. 6, 1949, at 2:20 p.m. another major fire started in the basement and spread rapidly throughout the building.

This time, fire crews were able to save the brick structure and pipe organ, but at the sake of much of the sanctuary being destroyed by fire and water damage. The damage to the church amounted to $37,500, which amounts to $362,992.12 in 2012.

For the third time, instead of giving up and finding a new church, members of the Lester Park UMC pitched in and helped rebuild their spiritual home with their own time and money. Marge Hamilton, a member since 1964, often volunteers at the church on Sundays in the church office.

“The fact that the people were willing to spend time and energy to keep the place here for the neighborhood, that’s powerful,” Hamilton said.

On Dec. 4, 1949, Rev. Albert Schmitt would rededicate the Lester Park UMC for the fourth time just days before its 60th anniversary. The church has since stood the test of time and has not had any fires since.

Since the destruction in its history, the church has expanded two different times and added on additional building and parking spaces to accommodate for the growing congregation.

In the church’s first 60 years, the members of Lester Park UMC experienced three major fires nearly crumbling their spirits, but resiliency and faith were key, as each member pitched in to keep the church running for everyone in Lester Park.

“Any shared disaster and shared effort forces people to come together and become close because they couldn’t do it alone," Hamilton said. "They needed each other."

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