This Thanksgiving, the Rev. Theresa Jacobson is grateful to see sandbags on her church’s lawn.
The barriers remind her of the flooding threat that Our Savior’s Lutheran Church faced twice this year from the neighboring James River. However, they also symbolize the outpouring of support that protected the tiny 16-member parish six miles south of Menno.
“We were in crisis mode when the flooding started,” she said. “But it was all in God’s hand. There’s no way any human being could have devised such a (rescue) plan.”
The structure — called “Stone Church” because of its exterior made of rocks —was built in 1948. Jacobson was called to serve Grace Lutheran Church in Menno eight years ago, and she also serves Our Savior’s as a sister congregation.
Throughout its history, Stone Church has been subject to the James River’s prolonged flooding as one of the flattest rivers on Earth. The “Big Jim” begins in North Dakota and flows south through eastern South Dakota until entering the Missouri River near Yankton.
Long-time parishioner Barb Ulmer considered the 1984 flooding the worst threat until this year, Jacobson said. Ulmer has tracked the James River levels and saw this year’s readings surpassing the flood event 35 years ago.
Last March, a bomb cyclone unleashed massive rainfall across eastern South Dakota, hitting an already saturated region. The James River was raging out of its banks.
“We had pictures and videos, and I couldn’t believe the water got within a few feet of the door,” she said.
Then, a September deluge dumped more than 10 inches of rainfall in the Mitchell area in a 30-hour period. The floodwaters went into the James River and roared downstream to the Menno-Olivet area.
The quickly-moving flood threatened to overwhelm Stone Church’s membership. The parish lacked the manpower and resources to deal with the impending threat.
On a moment’s notice, an estimated hundreds of volunteers arrived along with sand, bags, cement blocks, fuel and other donated materials. When flooding cut off nearly all roads leading to the church, ways were devised to airlift materials to the flood site.
Once again, Jacobson pointed to divine intervention as the only way the church was saved from major damage, if not destruction.
“We only have two members who are under 60 years old. If you had left it up to our 16 (parishioners), we wouldn’t have had the physical ability to do everything that needed to be done,” she said. “To see everyone who showed up and helped out, I was just shocked. I was absolutely speechless. In the moment, I just didn’t fully realize what was happening.”
What Our Savior’s lacked in numbers was made up with engineers David Mensch and Les Diffin among its congregation members, Jacobson said.
“When I arrived here eight years ago, we had five members. Now, we’re up to 16,” the pastor said. “And of that 16, we just happen to have two engineers who knew how to fight the flood. One just happened to join our congregation a short time ago. What are the odds of that? It’s another example of God’s hand at work.”
Two months after the flooding, Jacobson still finds it surreal. Without hesitation, she finds plenty of reason why this has become such a special Thanksgiving.
“First and foremost, the gratitude goes to God. There’s no way any human being could have orchestrated this. This was all God’s provision and God’s healing,” she said. “Under that (first part) comes the gratitude for the people involved and their resources. They had a choice, and they could have said, ‘Sorry, you’re on your own.’ But they didn’t.”
When it comes to volunteers, Jacobson points to a special group.
Because of the flooding, Menno High School’s homecoming activities were postponed and the football game rescheduled to the following Monday. With no classes or school activities, a number of students spent their “flood day” helping save the Stone Church.
“When was the last time they had a day off in September and it was nice outside?” Jacobson asked. “Instead of spending that Friday doing something fun, they decided to help save Stone Church.”
ANSWERING THE CALL
Learning of the Sept. 11 upstream deluge at areas such as Mitchell, Madison and other sites, downstream observers were casting a wary eye at the James River levels.
The Menno residents’ fears were realized Thursday, Sept. 12.
Our Savior’s parishioner Curt Ulmer, a Hutchinson County commissioner, received forecasts the James River would crest a record levels. Word was also received about possible dam breaches.
“When it came to our flooding, I had gotten the word that things were getting really bad, really quick. We only had a short amount of time to do something,” Jacobson said.
“The fire department here in Menno sent out an SOS text message to their folks and say, ‘Hey, if any of you can help down at the Stone Church, we’re trying to build a levee to prevent the waters from coming in.’ After the text message, people just started showing up.”
Jacobson’s husband was out of town, and she was home alone with their three children. Ulmer provided her with progress updates.
“Curt told me that half the town of Menno was (at the church). I said, ‘Curt, I don’t believe that. There was talk that major flooding was going to happen, and I’m sure everyone is working on their own homes.’ But Curt kept saying they had half the town working at the church,” she said.
Menno has around 600 residents, which further led to Jacobson’s disbelief that hundreds of people would show up. However, she soon learned that volunteers from the entire community and surrounding area had descended on the site to offer helping hands.
“People from Grace Lutheran helped, but so did many other people. Every single church in town was represented,” she said. “They were working against the clock. A little after 6 o’clock, I got a call from Curt again, I heard urgency in his voice that I hadn’t heard before. He told me, ‘If you can, come down and see this.’”
When Jacobson arrived on the scene, she was shocked at the assembly line working on the sandbags.
“I couldn’t even speak, I was in such a state of shock to see the chaos of all these people working against the clock,” she said. “Everything had been cleared out of the basement. Curt (Ulmer) had a trailer that stored everything that had been in the basement, even our water heater.”
Work continued on Friday the 13th, which would seem to have signaled a bad omen. The race continued against the clock, and the effort was touch and go.
OFFERING A HAND
Menno resident Brady Duxbury, a member of Grace Lutheran Church, responded to the call for volunteers. In addition, he serves as the Menno High School agriculture teacher and FFA advisor who oversaw those students who volunteered to spend their “flood day” working at Stone Church.
“I got involved in the sandbagging because I received a text to respond as a volunteer firefighter,” he said. “I responded, and we began by clearing out the basement. We thought at the time the church base was simply going to be lost, so we were just there for a salvage operation.”
However, the discussion and effort turned another direction, Duxbury said. The idea surfaced to use cement blocks to build a levee.
“At some time, people began talking about how to save the church. Once the ‘big boy’ cement blocks were ordered, we all knew we would give it a try,” he said. “It was exhausting work, and as the water kept coming and our wall had to continually get taller and taller, there was a point where we thought we wouldn’t save the church.”
The cement blocks came from a variety of sources, including farmers and an area business, Jacobson said. Mensch and Diffin knew the engineering approach to take on the levee.
“(Mensch) knew the things that needed to get done by a specific time or we wouldn’t be able to save the church. Moments after they finished the levee, flood waters hit and came roaring up. It was just phenomenal,” she said. “You look at the aerial scenes, and it hit home what could have been and how we weren’t out of the woods by any means. We were just holding our breaths and praying to God.”
Jacobson believes, without the levee, the flood waters would have filled the basement and moved up the stairs leading to the sanctuary. The basement did sustain some cracks because of the water table, but she estimated only about two inches of water accumulated because of the use of sump pumps.
“Without the levee, would it have destroyed the church? Not necessarily, but it would have created a great deal of damage that would have required a lot of repairs,” she said. “The sanctuary is located on the second floor, but with flooding right under us, it would have been too dangerous.”
The effort reached a literal roadblock, Jacobson said. The massive flooding resulted in the closing of roads across southeast South Dakota, including Interstate 90.
“With the roads closed, we had no access to Yankton or Mitchell and not even to Sioux Falls on easily traveled roads,” she said. “The roads were closing all the way around us, and yet the resources were there for us to do the work that needed to be done for the church.”
The Menno Fire Department put out its second SOS alert for meeting at Stone Church. Jacobson offered support for those who responded.
“I knew I needed to be there, that was the only way to describe. It’s like, if I had a loved one, like a sick child, nothing else mattered in your work. You can’t put the IV in their arm, and you can’t run the necessary tests. But in that moment, you wanted to be with that child,” she said.
“I didn’t have the physical strength to move those cement blocks, and I didn’t have the engineer’s expertise on what to do to keep the water from coming in. But I could walk around and talk to people who were resting and I could pray as they worked fervently.”
With the work done, one parishioner said the time had come to wait and leave it up to God.
“We gathered for our Saturday night worship service, but I saw their exhaustion,” Jacobson said. “I told them, ‘Tonight, let’s just sit and pray together.’ We did, and it was wonderful to be together in that small church.”
MAINTAINING A TRADITION
Our Savior’s Church has continued holding its worship services, and it will continue a tradition — its old-fashioned Christmas service. This year’s worship service, open to the public, will be held Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. in the church. The candlelight service includes traditional music on an old pump organ and the singing of “Silent Night” in German, Danish and English.
“It’s like a sense of hope, something to look forward to after all that has happened. It sends a message that we’re going to continue on,” Jacobson said. “We’re so small that we were worried that people had forgotten about us. But the way the community came to the aid of a church with fewer than 20 people, we know we’re not forgotten.”
While the flooding has been turned back for now, it’s not forgotten, Jacobson said.
“Part of the levee remains for the moment. We have this little bit of insecurity. We never expected this to happen. What if something happens again?” she asked.
“North Dakota had 1-3 feet of snowfall (earlier this fall), and it will find its way to Jamestown and then down the James River to this area. We anticipate flooding again. We’re looking at putting a permanent levee in place.”
Whatever happens in the future, Duxbury noted God’s guiding hand for His people.
“When the water started receding and we knew that the church would be saved, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was amazing to see so many people come together for a common goal and for us to actually succeed was truly a blessing indeed,” he said.
“I’m not a member of (Our Savior’s) church, but I’m proud that I was one of the many sets of hands that helped to save it. When people come together with a good plan and the same goal, there truly isn’t anything that we cannot accomplish.”
For updates and more information, visit the church on Facebook or its website at stonechurchmenno.com.
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