Lightning is believed to have struck the steeple of one of the oldest churches in Douglas County, Solem Lutheran Church near Kensington, Friday night, Aug. 21.

At about 8:25 pm., the Douglas County Sheriff's Office received a 911 call from a passerby reporting the fire at 9159 County Road 1 SW, two miles north of Kensington.

The Kensington Fire Department responded with assistance from Hoffman Fire, Evansville Fire and Alexandria Fire departments.

Alexandria’s aerial truck was used to extinguish the fire.

The steeple was damaged by fire and the rest of the church sustained water damage, according to the sheriff's office.

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Authorities believe the fire started from a lightning strike as a thunderstorm with frequent lightning passed through the area Friday night.

Roger Thompson, a member of the Solem Preservation Association Board, said he was told by firefighters that if the departments would have arrived five minutes later, the whole building would have been lost.

“It was that close,” said Thompson, whose great-great-grandfather is one of the church’s founders.

Douglas County sheriff's deputies and Hoffman Ambulance also responded.

The steeple was badly damaged, Thompson said. “I don’t know if it’s repairable,” he said.

Thompson, who went into the church the day after the fire, said he saw water on the ceiling and floor.

“I was pleasantly surprised because I was expecting much worse damage than we had,” he said. “But of course, I couldn’t tell what’s behind the walls.”

A cleaning service arrived at the church Saturday and got to work right away, said Thompson, who was still waiting to hear from the insurance adjuster on Monday.

Thompson noted one of Solem Lutheran’s “claims to fame” – seven members of the Olof Ohman family are buried in the church cemetery, lot #1. Olof is credited with finding the Kensington Runestone on his farm in 1898.

Solem Lutheran Church was established May 21, 1876, and its early services were held in Norwegian. It closed its doors in June 2008 after serving the area for 132 years.

Although the congregation is no longer meeting at the church, three fundraising events are held annually with former members taking part – a “Welcome Home” church service and potluck dinner in May; Runestone Days in June when the Solem Preservation Association Board puts on an “Old Fashioned” BBQ, pie and ice cream social; and a Harvest Festival in the fall.

This year’s events were canceled because of COVID-19 precautions.

Solem was also available to be rented for baptisms, weddings, reunions, funerals, meetings and more from May through October.