by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service The congregation of another Presbyterian church is picking up the pieces following a fire last week. The First Presbyterian Church of Girard, Pennsylvania was destroyed after fire broke out early Sunday, July 15. It was one of two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) churches damaged by fire in four days. The sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas caught fire on Thursday, July 19. In both cases, there were no injuries or fatalities.
Firefighters were called to First Presbyterian in the middle of the night, according to the Rev. David Oyler, general presbyter with the Presbytery of Lake Erie.
"The building was totally devastated so no one could get close to it. As many as 13 different fire departments responded," said Oyler. "I'm told a half-million gallons of water were used on the site to control the fire and save a house used by the church as the community food pantry."
Oyler says the house was saved and is still serving the community while the congregation determines future plans for worship space.
Last night, more than 200 people showed up in the rain for a special prayer service in the church parking lot. A local funeral home provided shelter, seats and a sound system as the congregation and neighboring churches and presbytery leaders gathered for prayer and healing.
"Some of the church members were seeing the devastation for the first time since the fire," she said. "One member had been out of town and was very emotional when she saw what had happened saying four generations of her family had worshipped at the church."
Kraus spoke at the service saying Presbyterian Disaster Assistance would walk with them through the grief and recovery period. She added that members of the National Response Team would also be present at worship services on Sunday.
"Pastor Nicola Vitiello also addressed the group saying that the gathering was like a funeral service for a building," Kraus said. "The church had become their sacred space and held memories of a life together. But he also talked of hope and the future."
The church sanctuary was built in 1892 and most of the building was destroyed by the flames. A Sunday school building and two towers were saved as were two crosses from the top of the church according to Oyler.
"Prayers were lifted up across Lake Erie Presbytery. The church is receiving prayer support but will also receive financial support," he said. "A number of congregations have stepped forward, not only in offering worship space, but also financial support."
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, according to Oyler, adding that the congregation is ready to move forward despite the pain and loss.
"This week I have been meeting with the session to begin making some decisions for the short and long term. I am humbled by the response the church is receiving from across Erie County as well as the larger church, including neighboring executive presbyters," said Oyler. "There is a multitude of compassionate Presbyterians who are reaching out to a church that has been heavily devastated."