Fire destroys small Episcopal church beloved by Rosebud Sioux community in South Dakota

By David Paulsen
Posted Oct 30, 2023
Holy Innocents Episcopal Church interior

Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Parmelee, South Dakota, dating to 1890, was destroyed by fire Oct. 28. Photo: Lauren Stanley, via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota are grieving the destruction of a historic church, which was leveled Oct. 28 by a fire that now is the focus of a criminal investigation.

Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Parmelee, which dates to 1890, was reduced to a smoldering foundation by the morning fire. No one was injured, and arson is suspected, according to South Dakota Bishop Jonathan Folts.

The fire “is devastating news for the parishioners of Holy Innocents, for all members of the Rosebud [Episcopal] Mission, and for all of us as a diocese, and we are in mourning at this time,” Folts said in a written statement on the day of the fire. “I ask you all to please keep all of Holy Innocents in your prayers. This is a tragic day of loss that is being felt far and wide.”

Folts traveled to Parmalee to pray with residents on Oct. 30 along with the Rev. Lauren Stanley, canon to the ordinary. Stanley has been posting additional updates to Facebook, and others in the Rosebud Sioux community have responded online with shock at the news.

“That little beautiful church can never be replaced,” Prairie Rose Chapin said in a Facebook post reacting to the fire. “There is so much history with all our families that were made there, weddings, baptisms, gatherings, wakes and funerals, celebration, birthdays and memorials.”

Another, Caŋté Húŋkešni Wí, posted in anguish after seeing the destruction in person: “Our family has many precious memories tied to Holly Innocents Church.”

Church bell

The damaged church bell at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Parmelee, South Dakota. Photo: Lauren Stanley

The church was established in 1890, when the area was a ration station for the Sicangu, the ancestors of today’s Rosebud Sioux, according to a report by the online publication Sicangu News. Parmelee, named a century ago for a grocery store owner, is located west of the city of Mission in the northwest corner of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, about a half hour from the Nebraska state line.

The structure that burned was the original wood from 1890, Stanley told Episcopal News Service. All that the congregation was able to salvage from the ruins were part of a brass Niobrara cross and the church’s bell, which was damaged by its fall when the steeple collapsed in the fire. “We’re all just devastated,” Staley said, though the church was insured and will be rebuilt eventually.

The congregation, which ranged from about 5 to 25 on Sundays, hadn’t worshiped in the church building since it was damaged by vandals in December 2022, Stanley added. The diocese had planned to finish repairs in time to resume worship in the church by this Christmas. Instead, services will continue in a temporary worship space in the nearby guild hall.

People interested in supporting the congregation can make a financial donation online through the Diocese of South Dakota by selecting “give to congregations and missions” and specifying Holy Innocents Episcopal Church.

“As followers of Jesus Christ, we are a people of hope. We are faithful, we are resilient, and we will persevere,” Folts said Oct. 30 in a statement to ENS. “We thank God that no one was killed or injured. We thank God for the volunteer firefighters who responded. We thank God for the lives and witness of those baptized, confirmed, ordained, married and buried here. We thank God for the memories made in this building for the past 133 years – memories that no one will ever be able to destroy or take away.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at