Church members step carefully through the debris, pausing to stare at the charred piano, the open ceiling, a soggy Bible. They speak softly and briefly.
“Didn’t we put that carpet down when you all were here?”
“That was such a magnificent organ.”
“That was the Christmas room up there, where we stored all the decorations.”
Noticing that the wooden cross in her mother’s memory was burned, Jane Hixson fights back tears. But then she smiles and makes a joke, which her husband will repeat almost word for word a few moments later.
“I guess the second hottest night in this church – after the fire on Sunday night – is the night Reggie and I got married,” Hixson says. “July 25, 1959. The church wasn’t air conditioned and you couldn’t open the windows. The bridesmaids were ready to pass out ... ”
St. Elmo United Methodist Church, a Chattanooga church established in 1887, was consumed by fire on Sunday night, Aug. 23. The now-destroyed building was dedicated in 1921 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Fire investigators pursued nearly 60 leads before announcing that an electrical malfunction in the church attic caused the fire, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
The Rev. Mark Dowell, St. Elmo pastor, said he was “relieved” by the investigation’s results.
“They tried to say it was a hate crime, but we were pretty sure it was an electrical fire,” said Dowell. “If anything, the community has shown love through all of this. This was not a hate crime.”
The fire was reported to Hamilton County’s 911 service about 6:30 p.m., according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. About 12 fire units responded and worked an hour to put out the fire. No injuries occurred, but the building and most of its contents were destroyed.
Dowell was in the kitchen of his next-door parsonage when his 12-year-old daughter, who was playing basketball outside, ran to tell him about the smoke coming from the church roof.
Dowell called 911 and briefly ran inside the church to make sure no one was inside. He called several church members who rushed to the scene.
“It was like watching a movie, it was so surreal,” said Barry Condra, describing the fire. “It’s been very emotional. I have cried all week. But we were so relieved when we got the news that it wasn’t a hate crime. Now we can start over.”
Federal investigators may have suspected arson because the congregation is diverse and inclusive, said Dowell. “But we said, ‘No, it’s just an old building.’”
The church has $1.5 million in insurance coverage, “but we have no idea what the total damage is yet,” Dowell said. “We’re not going to be able to salvage much, maybe some stained glass. What wasn’t damaged by fire is damaged by water.”
The parsonage survived except for some heat damage to the siding, but Dowell lost most of his library and other clergy resources stored in his office.
“It’s a real sense of homelessness, of very intensive grief,” the pastor said. Holston leaders are working to connect Dowell and St. Elmo with other Holston churches that have recently suffered fires – such as First Madisonville United Methodist Church and Baileyton United Methodist Church. “That will help us to know what the process will be like,” Dowell said.
‘Go to work’
The St. Elmo congregation worshipped the first Sunday following the fire, Aug. 30, at Bethlehem Center in Chattanooga.
Bishop James Swanson preached at the 11 a.m. service, lunched at Bethlehem Center, then toured the St. Elmo site. In his sermon, Swanson referred to Haggai, 2:3-4. He read:
“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,” declares the Lord. “Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,” declares the Lord, “and work. For I am with you,” declares the Lord Almighty.
“Go to work,” Swanson said. “That’s really what the Lord says. Get up and go to work ... It may be tragic to fall down, but the real tragedy is if you stay down.”
Swanson led the emotional crowd to laughter, tears, and applause:
“Your future is far greater than your past,” he said. “If the walls of St. Elmo could talk, the people who built this church had just as many negative forces 88 years ago as you do today. Be strong. Now you have a reason to work.”
St. Elmo leaders are still deciding how to proceed, Dowell said. Their priorities are to secure office space as well as worship space for 110. Numerous churches and groups have offered their facilities, including Bethlehem Center, Lookout Mountain UMC, First-Centenary UMC, and the nearby Seventh Day Adventist church. (On Sept. 6, the congregation will worship at St. Elmo Seventh Day Adventist Church.)
“Every church in the neighborhood has offered their church,” Dowell said. Checks arrive “from nowhere,” he said, along with food and books.
“People have said to me, ‘Whatever you need, now or in the future ... ’” he said. “We complain a lot, but the United Methodist connection is beautiful. The outpouring of love from the whole community has been incredible. Christ has been proclaimed. That’s the real story.”
The St. Elmo congregation is strong and can rebuild, said Condra, a church trustee and chair of the pastor/parish relations committee.
“This is our new beginning. We can do this,” Condra. “We might fuss and fight sometimes, but then we all go to lunch together. We’re where we need to be.”