Remembering the Gnadenau Church fire

Gnadenau Church burned down in a fire on Christmas Eve in 1956. The church eventually rebuilt and became Parkview Mennonite Church.

Caryl Wiebe still remembers the Gnadenau Church fire that happened 66 years ago on Christmas Eve in 1956. She and her husband had gotten married there in 1955 and loved attending Christmas Eve services.

“John and I went to the Christmas program at Gnadenau. We were living in Clay Center at the time but were asked to accompany the young people in going Christmas caroling. This is something we did every Christmas,” said Wiebe.

She remembers that the group changed into older clothes, gathered at the church and went caroling.

“We always did it after our service. We went to the Menno Jost farm two miles west of Gnadenau and then traveled east to the Ezra Barman farm. When we left their drive, we could see a bright light to the west and drove there immediately. As we came nearer we knew it was the church on fire. I remember some of the girls were so afraid that they would not be able to be married in the church when they saw the fire,” said Wiebe.

Wiebe and her husband were the first ones there since they had lead the group. The rest of the group followed.

Wiebe said, “We realized it was already a horrific blaze. Jerry Plett, having put on more comfortable clothes and leaving his suit hanging in the foyer, wanted to go inside the building to retrieve his suit. John had to hold him to keep him from going in because the fire was already too intense. He would have died.”

Wiebe’s husband John asked her to go to Hillsboro where we were staying with his parents and pick up his camera.

“While there, I called the telephone operator, Gladys Buller, and told her of the situation. She immediately did the ‘all points bulletin’ call which could be heard by everyone and then made some specific calls to some of the older members of the congregation,” said Caryl.

Wiebe vividly remembers that it didn’t take long for many people to congregate to watch the church burn down.

“John took several pictures with his slide camera and later developed them. Many of the members asked to buy copies as a remembrance. A meeting was held as to what to do on Christmas morning because we always had services on that day as well. It was decided to meet at Tabor College,” said Wiebe.

It was eventually decided to move the church to town with the idea that it may encourage more people to join the Gnadenau members at the new location rather than driving into the country.

“As a result, many Tabor College students joined us at the new building and some of them walked to church. There was much discussion what to name our new building —whether to use Gnadenau again or something else. Since Gnadenau means “Meadow of Grace” that name was mentioned. However, after further discussion it was decided to name the church Parkview because you could view the Park/Golf Course at that time,” said Wiebe.

While she has many memories from that night, there are two events that stand out in her mind even after 66 years.

“I remember one gentleman standing and watching the fire far into the night. The other event was when the insurance adjuster came to check out what remained of value inside the church. He picked up a cup and said something to the person with him ‘well here is something’ and then it fell apart in his hands.

Wiebe still treasures the pictures her husband took that night.

“They really are amazing. Two pictures in particular seem so unusual. One is the picture of the chimney. It appears that it was built or added on to. There is a part about halfway up that pushes to one side,” said Wiebe. “The other picture means a lot to me. In one of the windows is a shadow —the appearance of a person. It reminds me of the event in the Bible of the three men in a fiery furnace and then a fourth person appears-the Man of God. The rest of the pictures pretty much just show what a horrendous fire it was.”

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