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Ethel Gray remembers vividly how surreal it felt the night an arsonist's fire destroyed a major part of Heritage Christian School.

Within hours, word spread through the school community and people gathered at a nearby pond to pray. They could see the charred gym, where the fire started, and classrooms that were burned, blackened by smoke or damaged by water from firefighters' hoses.

“We rallied together and gave it to the Lord,” said Gray, one of four co-administrators at the 150-student school, founded in 1982.

“There were a lot of tears, a lot of emotion,” said Gerry Goede, co-administrator and teacher. “Yet even then, people thought God has a purpose. It has brought our school family closer together.”

Today, the school community will celebrate the reopening and $3 million renovation of Heritage Christian School.

They plan a 10 a.m. bike ride from Discovery Drive, the school's temporary home for the past year, to the renovated school at 4310 Durston Road. That will be followed by an 11:30 a.m. barbecue and an open house and unveiling of the new gym at noon.

On Sunday, exactly one year after the fire, people will stand at the same pond at 7:30 p.m. to pray again.

“We want to gather together and thank the Lord,” Gray said.

Fire investigators found evidence of arson, but never caught the culprit. Insurance covered most of the rebuilding, Goede said, except for improvements required by updated building codes. That meant installing a fire sprinkler system and large underground water tank to supply it.

The Montana Bible College on South 19th Avenue had been planning to turn former Petra Academy classrooms into a dormitory for its students, but agreed to wait a year so Heritage could hold classes there. Goede said the space was about one-third the size of Heritage School, so students and teachers were crowded, but it helped families and teachers build closer relationships.

In February, large cranes were brought in to demolish the blackened gym and its fallen roof, which left a giant hole in the middle of the school. Then Langlas & Associates got to work building a new gym, while Montana DKI/Dayspring restored damaged classrooms.

To raise about $200,000 not covered by insurance, the school held a barn dance and bike-a-thon. Churches and other schools donated small amounts. Coaches from opposing teams even donated books.

The result is a larger gym with shiny hardwood floors and enough room to hold two basketball games at the same time. The bleacher area has been doubled to 700 seats, and the theater facing the gym has a broader stage opening. A new lunch room was added between the gym and existing cafeteria.

The girls varsity volleyball team was practicing in the new gym Friday.

“It's nice,” said Kristin Darling, 17. “It's amazing what God provides.”

“It was heart-breaking at first,” when the old gym burned, said Emily Christofferson, 16. “It turned out everything worked out for the good. We have this humongous new gym now… It's awesome.”

Reopening the school, Gray said she feels “excited and very grateful for everyone who made this possible and of course, to the Lord.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at com or 582-2633.

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