Marion, SD Catholic Church Explosion, Apr 1949

Dakota Church Blast Kills Six

Fifty Sunday Worshippers Hurt in Furnace Explosion

MARION, S. D., April 10 (AP).----The St. Mary's Catholic Church blew up Sunday while it was partly filled with Palm Sunday worshippers.

Six elderly persons were killed and at least fifty persons were injured when the roof and brick walls came tumbling down upon them as they knelt in their pews.

Many more escaped injury because they were in front of the church enjoying the sunshine, waiting for the church bell to call them to worship. About seventy-five persons were in their seats.

It was just before the 9 a.m. mass was to begin. Father Joseph Zimmerman, 73, pastor of the parish of Marion and Monroe, waited in the sacristy to enter the altar, banked with palm leaves.

Some of the parishioners complained it was cold in the church. Phil Wachendorf, a car dealer who had helped arrange to get the church a bottle fuel furnace a few years ago, volunteered to go to the basement and turn it on. The janitor had gone outside to ring the bell.

Wachendorf, speaking from his hospital bed in Sioux Falls, said he threw the furnace's switch and "everything blew up."

The whole building shook, and then bricks and timbers showered down upon the congregation. Wachendorf, badly hurt and his hand burned, managed to crawl out of the basement through a hole in the wreckage.

The force of the blast caved in the roof and blew out the walls. There was a small fire, but it was extinguished quickly.

The sound of the explosion, plus the screams of injured and trapped persons, attracted the attention of nearly every person in this farm town of 775 people.

They rushed to the crumbled church and began to dig in the rubble. The only part of the building that remained standing was some of the wall around the altar and the choir space.

Father Zimmerman had been trapped by debris falling into the sacristy. Helped out, he escaped with a broken rib and cuts. Then he assisted rescue operations.

Found were the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. John Marso, Mrs. Peter Redding, Mrs. George Bittner and Mrs. Philip Luke, all of Marion and Charles McGinnis of Monroe. All were in their 60's or 70's.

Falls and Mitchell, the closest cities with good hospital facilities. Each is about forty miles from Marion.

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad set up a special mercy train to carry the injured to Mitchell.

One eyewitness was Miss Agnes Kleszak, the rectory housekeeper.

She was getting ready to go next door to the church when she heard a "terrific explosion."

"I looked out and saw walls falling." she said. "I started putting in calls for doctors and other help. I knew there must be about 250 people in the church for mass, because of Palm Sunday."

Marion, a town of 775 population, is located fort miles southwest of Sioux Falls in the heart of a farming area. The St. Mary's church serves the parish of Marion and of Monroe.

Dallas Morning News, Dallas, TX 11 Apr 1949