Walhalla Presbyterian Church, located in Oconee County along the borders of North Carolina and Georgia, suffered heavy damage from a fire that started and burned Saturday (Sept. 14). Nearly 150 firefighters from eight departments in the county assisted in fighting the blaze at the 133-member church.
Investigation of the fire continues by the City of Walhalla Fire Department, but it is believed that the fire started in the church attic area – possibly as an electrical wiring problem – and spread throughout, eventually make its way to the roof – a domed area over the sanctuary.
“Certainly this was a tragic shock to us, but we’ll continue to worship,” said S.C. State Senator Thomas Alexander, a longtime member of Walhalla Presbyterian Church. “The body of Christ is strong and united, and we look forward to what God has in store for us.”
Portions of the upper level of the church, founded in 1868, collapsed into the sanctuary below, fire officials said, and it took more than three hours to bring the blaze – mostly in the attic and roof – under control.
“Our building is very old,” Walhalla Clerk of Session Rosemary Bailes said of the current facility built in 1906. “The dome on the roof was burned, and we have to make arrangements to bring that down. Our prayer is that the walls may be left standing and perhaps we can rebuild inside.”
Alexander indicated that the structural integrity of the roof has been called into question, but it has not collapsed yet.
“We’ll have to determine how we can safely move forward,” he said.
Damage to the church
The fire was reported around 10:15 a.m. by Bill Weeks, the organist at the church. Weeks, following his routine of some 20 years, was at the church practicing hymns for Sunday’s worship service when he heard a crinkling sound. Thinking someone had entered the building to deliver flowers or pick up lesson materials, he returned to playing. Then he heard a noise like twigs crackling or burning. Turning from his position, Weeks saw thin wisps of smoke coming from the organ speaker room in the balcony.
Rushing upstairs, Weeks opened the speaker room door and was met by thick smoke. The base of a speaker and the floor under it were ablaze. He attempted to put out the flames with a fire extinguisher, but had trouble operating the device, and the fire spread quickly beyond his control. Weeks raced to the secretary’s office, called 911 to report the fire and vacated the building unharmed as the sanctuary was filling with dark smoke.
“We’re still somewhat shellshocked,” Bailes admitted. “The pictures are grim, but it could have been so much worse. If it had been 24 hours later, we would have had people in there.”
Bailes indicated that the roof and sanctuary suffered extensive damage as well as the fellowship hall, though she noted that the pews, stained glass windows and communion table still seemed to be in good shape even though covered with fire debris.
“The fire departments did a fantastic job. They had to use millions of gallons of water on the roof, and a lot of that ran into the sanctuary,” Bailes said. “We don’t know the true extent of damage yet, but we won’t be holding services there (in the sanctuary) for some time.”
Other parts of the building were not touched by the fire but suffered damage from the water used to extinguish the blaze. The fellowship hall was one of those areas that suffered water damage, and Alexander pointed out that it may be overhauled for worship use after a period of transition.
Dr. Gordon Raynal, interim executive presbyter/stated clerk of Foothills Presbytery, said the presbytery office was in contact with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) the day of the fire seeking help for the Walhalla congregation.
“It couldn’t have happened much quicker,” Raynal said. “PDA will help provide the support they need. Blessedly, there was no loss of life, and we pray for the congregation as they try to make a habitable place to hold services. There is, of course, great sorrow at the loss of this historic sanctuary. We will continue to pray for and support the congregation through their grief and through the new days of work ahead.”
Bigger than any building
Bailes said church members gathered at the site earlier this week, assessing damage and gathering items from the burned building, moving them to a safer location away from the charred portions of the facility as they try to refocus on the ministry to the Walhalla community in the face of such extenuating circumstances.
“We know God is much bigger than a building,” Bailes said. “There are a lot of older folks in our congregation and a lot of history there. There is sadness and emotion, but we know this building is not the church. We know that God is bigger than any building.”
Perhaps that was never more evident than when Alexander dug through some of the charred remains and found a plaque that once hung in the building. On it were the words of Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Alexander said there had been some discussion about changing the slogan on the sign at the church, but nothing had been decided yet. Finding the plaque may change that.
“I thought, ‘We’ll know it when we see it,’” he said. “Perhaps this was God saying He is at work. He is ever present with us and will see us through this. We can take great comfort from (the words on the plaque). I think that re-affirms that we’re on the road we need to be on now.”
Bailes added, “This is tragic and very difficult, but our church family has pulled together. We know God has a plan for us.”
A strong showing of support
Despite the fire damage, Walhalla had a worship service on Sunday, some 24 hours after the fire, albeit across the street at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. The leadership and members of St. Luke’s graciously offered to have a joint service following a prayer breakfast.
Four years earlier, Walhalla opened its doors for joint services with its Methodist brothers and sisters in Christ while St. Luke’s was being repaired from damage brought on by fire.
Alexander said Seneca Presbyterian Church already has extended an invitation for Walhalla’s congregation to participate in a joint service Sunday, Sept. 22.
Bailes said the outpouring of support shown to the Walhalla congregation has been touching.
“We have received numerous calls of support and encouragement,” she said, noting that there have been offers of space for services from at least four churches in the area if needed. “That’s just the way this community is. It’s a very close community, and other churches and groups of people really have rallied around us. It’s really heartening.”
The damage from the fire may displace Walhalla’s members for some time, and there will be challenges in coming days as they assess their future. But one thing is certain: Walhalla Presbyterian Church is not alone.
“There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but we know what God says. He will never leave us nor forsake us,” Bailes said. “We know God is with us and will be with us.”