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Their church burning and shrouded in smoke, members of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Duluth huddled on the corner of Sixth Avenue East and Third Street early Thursday. They were passing out hugs and staring in shock as the church’s altar burned the brilliant color of the morning sunrise visible on the horizon.  

“It’s a shock,” said Brett Amundson, breaking momentarily from the group to speak on its behalf. “Especially having just been in the building last night.”

The church held a Lenten soup supper and evening prayers on Wednesday night. Amundson, president of the church council, said it was a typical affair. By 6 a.m., the members were together again, this time in a phone chain that was alerting the congregation and staff members of the fire.

“It’s such a tragedy,” said a shaken Pastor David Carlson.

The fire broke out early and ravaged the structure that has been a landmark in the city's Central Hillside neighborhood for more than a century.

“The church has supported the Central Hillside in a lot of different ways and has been supported by the Central Hillside, too,” Amundson said, citing a free monthly breakfast the church has held for the past 10 years.  

Heavy smoke poured out from several parts of the building at Sixth Avenue East and Third Street as of 7 a.m., as firefighters had to break tall stained-glass windows to battle the fire. Crews reportedly were pulled out from inside the building for a time because of safety concerns, and continued to battle the fire from outside.

Passersby, including people on their way to work at the nearby Essentia Health complex, paused to watch as the smoke filtered throughout the neighborhood. Several streets were blocked off to allow firefighters to access the scene. More than a half dozen engine crews were at the scene, blasting water cannons into the interior of the building that flared with flames by 7:30 a.m.

“I guess that’s the altar,” said one female parishioner in the group. “I can’t talk; I’m in shock.”

Fire officials at the scene said the call came in from an automatic fire alarm. There were no immediate reports of injuries, and no word yet on the cause of the fire or the extent of the damage.

Gloria Dei was founded by Swedish immigrants as the First Swedish Lutheran Church of Duluth in 1870, according to a history on the church website. It moved into its present, Gothic-style structure in 1906.

Amundson said the church was zeroing in on its 150th anniversary, due to be celebrated in 2020.

“It’s a small but active congregation,” he said.

A statement on the church website says Gloria Dei is "committed to ministry in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth ... In previous decades, there were times when the congregation was asked to consider closing or relocating, but each time it affirmed that God had a mission for it in the Central Hillside neighborhood."

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