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Quick support gives Nez Perce's North Fork Presbyterian church new energy, life

North Fork Church Fire

North Fork Presbyterian Church burns on Christmas Eve 2008

In two days during late April a team of volunteers did a “wall raising,” rebuilding the North Fork Presbyterian Church in Ahsahka, Idaho, that had burned the afternoon of Christmas Eve 2008.

About 60 members who were eating lunch in an adjacent building before worship watched as the building burned down.

A new foundation and floor were laid in March in preparation for the wall raising and installation of the roof braces.

Work continued through the summer, and only a few finishing touches on the flooring remain.
The piano, pews, pulpit and other basic furnishings lost in the fire have been replaced thanks to gifts of labor and money from around the community, reservation, presbytery, synod, nation and world.

The building dedication is planned for 10 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 27, but the congregation has already come to funeral services and other worship services there.

Rebuilt North Fork Church

Rebuilt North Fork Presbyterian Church

“The church’s rebuilding quickly has been healing,” said Marilyn Bowen, the pastor.  “The support for rebuilding drew together families and community members despite some rifts.

“We came together on the same page to rebuild the church,” she said.  “People offered ideas, resources and help.”

The fire has opened discussions about keeping the status quo in the life of the church or considering making some changes, said Marilyn, who was certified as a lay pastor by the Presbytery in October 2008, two months before the fire.

She and her cousin, Corbett Wheeler, a church elder and moderator for the joint session of the six Nez Perce Presbyterian churches—Kamiah First and Second, Spalding First, Meadow Creek and Stites, Idaho—described the fire and the action since then.

On Dec. 24, after lunch in the adjacent building, a 2:30 p.m. Christmas program was scheduled.  It was winter, so the old wood stove in the church—authorized in 1884 and built in 1890—was keeping the building warm.

“We were standing around the wood stove, when a young person came inside and said there was a fire near the chimney outside,” said Corbett. “We saved only a few books.”

Three fire districts came, but the building was destroyed except for the front steps and a sign Corbett’s 91-year-old father, Wally, had made, giving the date the church was founded.  The dining hall beside the church was not damaged.

People stood in the parking lot of the fish hatchery next door watching the church burn.  Even then the members resolved to rebuild the church. 

North Fork Church Remains

Marilyn Bowen with remaining sign on burned church

When he heard about the blaze, Volkhard Graf, the pastor at Kamiah First Presbyterian, called home to Germany on his cell phone to let people there know of the loss, and immediately had a pledge of $2,800.  Someone else called a woman in Florida whose church helped renovate the Spalding church several years ago, and she sent $1,500, enough for the Rev. Art Finney from Second Presbyterian in Kamiah to build a new pulpit and communion table.

Other donations came in—from small amounts to $10,000 from the Alaska Northwest Synod and $25,000 from the Nez Perce Tribe toward the estimated more than $50,000 cost to date primarily for construction materials.  Labor has been mostly volunteer.

Soon they formed a building committee.  In early January, Corbett and Marilyn spoke at the Orofino Rotary Club about the church’s history.

Randy Bowen, the pastor’s husband, was Rotary president then.  He and Lowell Wiley, the current president, have organized members to help raise money and provide labor.
Randy has put photos of the fire and the rebuilding on YouTube

In February, work began on tearing down the remains.  Maple and Steve Stuivenga, members of Kamiah Second Church, rented a small excavator to do much of that work.  The rubble filled seven dumpsters.

Clark Burnham, 83, a retired home builder in the Rotary Club, served as construction coordinator, arranging for the foundation to be poured and for connection to the sewer system at the fish hatchery next door.  He supervised the complete building process.

North Fork Church Raising
Volunteers raising the walls for new North Fork Church

The labor for rebuilding has mostly been provided by volunteers.  People came from the church, neighboring churches, the community and churches around the region to help with the “church raising.” Ascension Lutheran Church in Orofino provided funds and labor.  A church in Aloha, Ore., sent people. Churches in Reardan and Davenport helped repair the dining hall, putting on vinyl siding to match the church. Shadle Park Presbyterian Church in Spokane has offered a bell.

“We are so thankful for all their help,” Corbett said.

“Having had a wood stove and needing other upgrades, we had no insurance on the church, but we are insuring the new building for $200,000, the cost of rebuilding it,” said Corbett.

The new building is a similar design to the old building, but it’s insulated and has a furnace, air conditioning and ceiling fans.

Marilyn, who was installed as the pastor in November, has been part of the church since her childhood.  Her great grandfather was the first ordained minister there, her grandfather was an elder and her father also grew up in the church.

In 1970, Marilyn moved to San Diego, where she met Randy, who grew up in Portland.  They lived along the West Coast during his years in the Navy, but often visited the reservation in the summer.  Their last few years before they came back to the Nez Perce reservation in 1991 were in San Diego.

For about seven years there, she was involved with urban Indian ministries to address needs of urban Indians in the military.  She worked with a Methodist minister to start a monthly Bible study and service.  Eventually, she led the studies and gatherings so they could meet more often.  The group has continued since she left.

After working 10 years as operations manager with the two Nez Perce casinos, she took a year off. 

Corbett recruited her to serve on the Native American Consulting Committee of the presbytery and the American Indian Youth Council.

“I felt called to serve so that our pastors would not be missionaries from outside our communities,” she said.  “It’s time for our people to take on leadership roles.”

Marilyn and Randy’s daughter, who is a church elder, lives in Kamiah and their son is in Spokane.  Marilyn along with Loretta Penney started a youth group in the Kamiah area.

“We want youth to walk the right path and learn to follow Jesus,” Marilyn said.
This summer, their high-school aged granddaughter led Christian education programs and a vacation Bible school for two weeks at the Talmaks Camp Meeting. 

One change in the life of the North Fork Presbyterian Church since the fire and rebuilding has been an increase in the number of people coming to worship.  Recently 45 attended the 2:30 p.m, Sunday service, set at that time to draw people on their way home to Lapwai from the 10 and 11 a.m. services in Kamiah.  They are stopping in to show their support as the church starts its life again.

“Many people are interested in taking membership classes, becoming members and having their children baptized,” Marilyn said.  “It has reopened people’s interest in being part of the church after being away from church for a long time.”

Services are in English, but they sing some hymns that are translated into Nez Perce and one elder, Wally Wheeler—Corbett’s father—prays in Nez Perce.

“As I watched when the church went up in flames just two months after I started, it was heartbreaking,” said Marilyn, adding that she feels God has been with the people in the church through the time, helping to reunite them and helping them know their strengths and weaknesses.

For her, awareness that “we are here temporarily and that nothing lasts forever” is a reminder that “eternity is with God.”

For information, call 208-935-2174 or email or