102-year-old Morristown church burns on Thanksgiving weekend

102-year-old Morristown church burns on Thanksgiving weekend

THE BAILEY BROTHERS were taking their cattle to market in Greeneville when they saw the “awful smoke” rising in the direction of Main Street.

"We couldn’t figure what it was,” says Ken Bailey, age 75.

Then the pager went off for Rob Bailey, who at age 73, is a firefighter for Baileyton’s volunteer fire department. The pager gave the news: The awful smoke was coming from Baileyton United Methodist Church.

The brothers already had eight white-face angus loaded in the truck, and so it fell on Ken to take the cattle to Greeneville. Rob headed off to get a fire truck, but Ken already had a bad feeling about how the day was going to turn out:

“I knew the church wasn’t going to be there when I got back.”

Breaking news: A second fire occurs in Holston Conference at First Madisonville United Methodist on Dec. 10. Visit the Knoxville News Sentinel for more details. Also visit www.holston.org for updates.

On the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, the 102-year-old Baileyton United Methodist Church burned so fast and furiously, the people who arrived to save it immediately knew it was a lost cause.

The fire was discovered at 8:10 a.m. on Nov. 24 when a resident noticed smoke coming from the church building, according to Greene County Deputy Sheriff Jeff Caudill in The Greeneville Sun.

Rob Bailey was the first to arrive with a fire truck, although 30 additional firefighters and eight more trucks would soon follow. Myra Moore, who was leaving her home at 8:15 a.m. to see her granddaughter play basketball, also saw the “huge plume of smoke” and was one of the first on the scene.

"You can’t imagine,” Moore says, her voice breaking, “you can’t imagine what it’s like to see your own church burn. The flames were coming out of the sanctuary … white, hot flames coming out of the windows. It was awful.”

"Every fire department in the county could have come, and we couldn’t have saved anything,” said Rob Bailey. “We squirted water on it, but it was useless. You can’t just stand there and do nothing. You’ve got to do something.

"Your heart just plumb falls out.”

A REPORT FILED by Deputy Sheriff Caudill estimated the value of the fire-destroyed church building as $300,000, a “total loss,” according to The Greeneville Sun.

Investigators first suspected a faulty fuse box, then a furnace malfunction. They don’t suspect arson, which claimed the nearby Sulphur Springs United Methodist Church in 2003. Sulphur Springs and Baileyton are two of four churches comprising the Baileyton Circuit. The others are Dody’s Chapel and Zion. The Baileyton community is located about a half-mile from exit 36 on I-81.

Members of the now-rebuilt Sulphur Springs are among the most supportive of their grieving neighbors at Baileyton UMC, according to Morristown District Superintendent Mickey Rainwater.

"That’s the kind of situation where you can say, ‘I know how you feel. You helped us, and now we’ll help you,’” the Rev. Rainwater said.

Rainwater learned of the fire about 8:20 a.m on Nov. 24, when a pastor called after hearing the news on a scanner. The district superintendent immediately called Baileyton’s pastor, the Rev. Cathy Fowler.

Fowler went directly to the site, and Rainwater joined her about 9:30 a.m. “It was almost over,” Rainwater said of the fire’s consumption. “There was one wall left.”

Fowler quickly set about finding a place to worship on the next morning. Members of the extensive Bailey family – whose ancestors were the first to settle here in 1783 and who helped establish the Baileyton Methodist Church in 1905 – also financed the building of the auditorium in Baileyton Elementary School.

When the congregation met at the school auditorium on the morning after the fire, worship attendance was 65, up from the usual 48 to 55, said Fowler.

"This is sad for me, so I know it’s heartbreaking for them,” Fowler said. “These people have always worked hard for the Lord, they’ve always been very faithful. This is a tragedy, but it seems to be drawing us together.”

"We’re very fortunate. It’s a good place to meet. Adequate parking,” said Ken Bailey, speaking about the school auditorium.

But it’s still not home.”

BISHOP JAMES SWANSON visited the site on the Tuesday after the fire.

It was his second visit to Baileyton UMC. He preached there in October 2005, when the church celebrated its 100th anniversary. The congregation had created a centennial walkway with engraved bricks honoring and memorializing loved ones as well as pastors who had preached there.

A brick honoring Swanson is located next to a surviving stairway, which now leads to nowhere. Church members recently hung Christmas wreaths on the stairs, in the midst of the rubble.

"We’re in the learning stage of taking up old brick,” said Ken Bailey. “If we leave them there, they’re going to get ruined.”

On the day Bishop Swanson came to see the destruction, parishioners met him at the site and tearfully thanked him for coming.

"They were totally in amazement that he would take time away from his busy schedule to come up here and give us words of encouragement,” Fowler said. “They’re still talking about it.”

Before he prayed with the group who had assembled at the site, Fowler said she heard Swanson tell a church member, “The devil is not going to have the last word here at Baileyton United Methodist Church.”

Within four days of the fire, the church had established a “Second Century” committee that will steer fund-raising efforts to re-build. Ken Bailey’s son, Ken Bailey Jr., is committe chair.

Besides breakfasts and barbecues, the congregation hopes to raise money through a cookbook. The cookbook was previously intended to provide funds for a roofing project, started just days before the fire. According to Moore, the publication deadline was originally scheduled for Oct. 31.

"I’m so glad we pushed that date back to December,” said Moore, who is organizing the project.

Since The Greeneville Sun reported on the fire and the cookbook fundraiser, recipes have come from all over the country. One recipe came from a woman in New Jersey who plans to relocate to Baileyton. Moore invites Holston members to send in one favorite recipe, including name, church, and address (fammoore@comcast.net). Her goal is to have 600 recipes by Dec. 15.

EVERYONE MENTIONS the beautiful stained-glass windows at Baileyton United Methodist Church. There were 19 installed over the years, some when the church was first built.

They’re all gone.

"Each one was a lesson in the life of Jesus,” said Moore. “People have told us about how important those windows were to them. One woman, who lives next to the church, said that sometimes when we left the sanctuary lights on at night, she would just sit on her porch swing, looking out at the stained glass.”

It may be several weeks before the insurance investigation is complete and insurance money is received, said Church Treasurer Ken Bailey.

In the meantime, church leaders hope the tragedy will give way to a new beginning for Baileyton.

Despite the sadness of carrying out Christmas rituals in a place other than the beloved church building, Fowler reports that one new member joined the congregation on Dec. 2, three more on Dec. 9. Four more have expressed interest. The new members have been attending the church for a while but wanted to show their support after the fire, she said.

"This fire has called attention to this particular community of faith,” said Rainwater. “It’s repositioned the congregation in the eyes of some of their folk. One of the things about fire is the possibility for purging and creating something new.

"We all want to see them not rush into re-building, but to be prayerful and to enter into a visioning process,” Rainwater added. “For my part, I hope they look into how they can provide for children and youth and to wire their building for contemporary worship.”

Fowler said she looks forward to accepting an offer made by Bishop Swanson – to provide help in the congregation’s planning process.

"We’ve started to grow, and we’re making plans for that growth,” said Fowler. “We’re going to have a brighter, bigger beacon for the Lord so that we can be a greater witness in this community. We want our light to shine even brighter than it did before.”

Church members are hopeful for the future, too, “but you can still see the sadness in their eyes,” Rainwater notes.

"I was raised in this church, married in it,” said Moore. “My grandparents sat on those pews. It was a very special place. I’m still saying things like, ‘I’m going down to the church ...’ and then I’ll catch myself, because it’s not there anymore.

“It’s hard to get it out of my head.”