MOUNT VERNON — On Saturday, the shock of a devastating fire seemed small; the restoration of a congregational place of worship was much greater. However, it is not in the building that a congregation’s hopes lie, but in the love following the fire that brought it closer together and stronger than ever before.
On Jan. 15, 2009, an electrical fire at the Victory Church of Christ in Mount Vernon caused the roof in the auditorium to collapse, and extensive water damage ruined other parts of the building.
“At that time we had a flat ceiling,” said Carl Snelling, church evangelist for 10 years. “So the fire was above the ceiling line, and it went through the trusses. After it burned about two to three trusses, the roof caved in, but the fire department did an excellent job stopping it from spreading to the rest of the building.
“We were very fortunate that a garbage man was going by, saw smoke coming out of the eaves, and called it in; this was about 6:30 a.m. By the time the fire department arrived, the flames were already through the roof,” said Snelling.
The fire happened on a Thursday. That following Sunday, the congregation continued to meet — at the Holiday Inn Express — not missing a service.
“We were at [the hotel] for about two months and then we had a modular facility brought in, the insurance company provided that, and we were able to stay right here on the property,” said Snelling. “We had services and people were able to see the progress of the rebuilding.”
Although the building’s foundation remains, many changes can be found in the rebuild. The auditorium now has a lancet arch instead of a flat ceiling, the stage area is bigger, the fellowship hall was moved to where the classrooms once were in the rear of the auditorium, and an audio production system was added with projector and screen.
In addition, a new fire alarm system was added, as well as a handicapped-assessable ramp that was built into the stage.
“This has been a learning experience for all of us,” said Teresa Snelling, Carl’s wife. “A lot of decisions had to be made, including who’s going to make them. So, we had people taking roles that never had roles prior; just everyone pulling together.
“This has been good to watch people come together for one purpose,” she continued. “We had to remind ourselves, ‘What is our purpose here?’ The building is done now, but that’s not our sole purpose — our purpose is to witness about Jesus Christ.”
The church received much support from the community through a music benefit sponsored by Central Church of Christ, and gifts came from as far away as Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia through the help from Kyowva Evangelistic Association. A baby grand piano was also gifted to the church from a benefactor, replacing the standard piano the church had before the fire. Several churches, including the Millwood Church of Christ and the Palmyra Church of Christ, were supportive.
“This is great,” said Bev Hawk, a five year member of the church. “Praise the Lord for all the help and support from the community helping us to build.”
Hawk sat watching as pictures of the fire and the rebuilding were shown on the new screen.
“It’s good to see everyone here,” said John Frazier, deacon of the church. Frazier has been with the church for 27 years and believes the congregation is making a comeback. “Some people left when the church burned, and then they’ll come back. But we’ll make it back.”
“God has really blessed us,” said Barbara Earlywine, who was a charter member of the church with her husband, John. “I feel that it’s been built better than it was previous. It was a tragedy, your worst nightmare, but it’s turning out to be a blessing and it’s good to be back in the building.”
For many of the members, the past few weeks have been filled with getting everything ready to reopen the church. And with Easter close at hand, members are ready to continue services in the building.
“In November, when we first came back after the fire happened, we didn’t have any pew chairs,” said Betty Postle, who is also a charter member with her husband, Dan. “We started moving back into the building even though we didn’t have all of our furnishings, but we were anxious to get back in.”
The crowning moment for many members of the congregation came when the pulpit and communion table arrived, just in time for the open house on Saturday.
The congregation began meeting in 1980 in the homes of several members; by 1981, they started the foundation for the original church building with 25 members.
“When we first started meeting here, when we bought the property, and they had poured a concrete pad out here, we would come here on Sunday evening and bring our lawn chairs to have meetings here on the property,” said Postle.
“We started here on the north side of Mount Vernon to fulfill a need [for a church],” said Earlywine.
On Sunday, the congregation dedicated its new building; the message was brought by Hoyt Allen of the KYOWVA Evangelistic Association.
Victory Church of Christ is on Upper Fredericktown Road in Mount Vernon.