Shaker Church Ministers Rodney Vigil and his wife Kathleen and Jacklin Billings stood beside a mess of burned beams that used to be the Historic Shaker Church on Indian Court in Smith River. The building burned to the ground before dawn Wednesday, leaving many to suspect it was intentionally set.
Rodney was holding a copy of the report by Smith River Fire Department, which listed the cause of the fire as ‘Unknown.”
“There was nothing in here that could ignite itself,” Rodney Vigil said. “It had to be somebody.”
Kathleen Billings noted the building was locked, and has been since a theft occurred there years ago.
“It was sometime back when we had about 23 sets of bells stolen,” she said, “Because the church was open and we just let it be open and somebody came in and stole all our bells.”
The church’s large iron bell and front steps were about the only recognizable features left standing after the fire was extinguished. A wreath of flowers was left atop the steps.
While the church was empty the night of the fire, the building itself was regularly used.
“Our assistant minister had service here every Sunday, her and her husband, and we have our monthly business meetings, and we have people come in for their healings...” said Kathleen Billings, noting a convention also took place there recently.
Loren Bommelyn, Tolowa Dee-Ni’ Tribal Council member, said it is unfortunate the community lost such an important part of its local history. He said he also felt the fire may have been intentionally set.
“It’s gotta be arson,” he said. “There was nothing in there. It was just a big, open church.”
Bommelyn noted the historical significance of the building, saying it was built in 1927, but opened in 1932.
“It was one of the last bastions of the Shaker religion,” he said, noting that small contingencies of the religion exist around Northern California and Washington.
Charlene Storr, of the Tolowa Nation, said the destruction of the church was sad for the entire community, as it was a spiritual gathering place for many.
“It means a lot to a lot of people,” she said.
Asked if they plan to rebuild, the Vigils said they would like to get going as soon as fire investigators are done.
“If they are finished with the report, we are just going to come in and start cleaning it up as soon as possible,” Rodney Vigil said.
“This whole ground is blessed,” Kathleen Billings said. “So it’s time for this to re-emerge. I was here in about 67’ when I joined and it always was a blessing. The spirit was really, really strong.” She noted some members have come from as far away as Canada to see the church and feel its spirit.
Kathleen Billings also spoke of many funerals, weddings and baptisms that had occurred there over the decades.
Rodney Vigil said the building itself was not insured, and likely would have been difficult to insure, as it was just a building without anything inside.
Smith River Volunteer Fire Department personnel were called to the fire at about 4:21 a.m.
Smith River Fire Chief Jeramy Phillips said the building was fully involved and almost completely on the ground when his department arrived. Personnel from Fort Dick and Cal Fire also responded to assist.
Phillips said personnel started by protecting neighboring buildings, such as the church’s dining hall, located about 20 feet away. The dining hall and another nearby building sustained mostly external damage.
Phillips said the fire took over an hour to control.
While investigation of the fire’s cause was turned over to the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office, Phillips said the fire was suspicious, since no one was living in the building at the time.