Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Only fond memories left after fire

Tears flow as Starbuck United Church burns to ground

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STARBUCK -- There wasn't enough water to douse the fire that engulfed the 110-year-old Starbuck United Church. Even Ellen Saltiss's tears couldn't help.

As Saltiss and her husband, Romeo, watched helplessly while their church burned to ashes Friday afternoon, a half-century of memories flooded back.

After all, Ellen and Romeo were exchanging vows on May 16, 1964, at almost exactly the same time -- 2 p.m. -- members of the RM of Macdonald volunteer fire department continued to train their hoses on the smouldering church rubble.

"It was like I was here, but not here," said Ellen of her reaction. "I would have been standing at the church at that moment 50 years ago today. That's the first thing I thought of."

The wooden church, built in 1904, caught fire around 1 p.m. Friday. Macdonald fire chief Mike Siemens suspected the blaze was caused when a neighbour was burning grass and leaves, which spread to a nearby garden shed. The fire spread to the north side of the church.

Romeo Saltiss, who owns a welding business located just metres away, was one of the first to arrive on the scene. By the time the pumper trucks arrived, fire had engulfed the back end of the church.

"Then it was done," Siemens said. "That old building, once the fire got inside, there's not much you can do."

However, a couple of the volunteers managed to save the church safe, which contained valuable historic records.

The provincial Office of the Fire Commissioner said damage is estimated at $650,000, including $50,000 in fire damage to homes on either side of the church, which was insured.

United Church minister Catherine Maxwell said the congregation includes family members whose ancestors founded the church. "It's going to be a big loss," she said. "We're a very small congregation, but a close one."

Pat Thomaschewski sat in the United pews for the past 56 years. "It's just heartbreaking," she said. "You just don't expect it to happen to you. Some of (the members) are born and raised in it and will really find it tough."

Like Shirley Weidman, for example.

"I thought, 'I'm strong. I can look at the church and not cry,' " she said, just prior to an emergency meeting of church members late Friday afternoon. "But I couldn't. My children were baptized in that church. What will I do on Sunday? It's part of my life. I always thought my funeral would be there. Now what will I do?"

Maxwell said it was too early to determine what happens next. But Ellen Saltiss, who first attended Starbuck United Church at the age of five, later sang in the choir and even later directed the church dinner-theatre production, has faith rebuilding will be part of any plan.

"There's too much love, too much history, with all the people here to just abandon it," she said. "We know the other churches will welcome us with open arms until we can rebuild. There's strength in numbers, and we're such a close family. We just care about each other so much.

"We won't let it be the death of us. It means too much to us."

While the church records may have been saved, Romeo Saltiss said the walls contained far more intangible memories. "There's flashes of everything that happened; weddings, baptisms, funerals. It's like 50 years flashing through your eyes in two minutes," he said.

Many townspeople reminisced as they stared into the smoke that spiralled up where the church steeple once stood. Mixed emotions were everywhere.

Even for Ellen and Romeo. After all, the day Starbuck United burned to the ground was not unlike the day the couple was married 50 years, three children and three grandchildren ago.

"It was a gorgeous day," Ellen recalled.

"Fresh and sunny," Romeo added.

Then the old groom looked across to his bride.

"But in my eyes, everything was bright and sunny that day," he said. "Still is."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Starbuck United Church in Starbuck, Manitoba caught fire and is a total loss Friday. Firefighters keep the fire under control near 3 p.m. to prevent it from spreading to homes on either side of the structure.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 A10

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