Iconic PCUSA church destroyed by fire from lightning strike

Main Street PCHoney Grove, regarded as “The Sweetest Town in Texas,” is dealing with a bitter loss.

The historic Main Street Presbyterian Church in the heart of the north-central Texas town burned to the ground in the early-morning hours of Feb. 10 after it was struck by lightning. The fire started sometime around 5 a.m. and consumed the building, leaving nothing to salvage.

Five Presbyterian churches in Honey Grove and surrounding communities had provided ministry for more than 150 years in Fannin County, located about 90 miles north of Dallas along the southern border of Oklahoma. Those churches were combined into Main Street Presbyterian Church through the years.

The fire totally devastated the church, leaving only a couple of brick columns that later toppled into the growing pile of bricks left in the debris. Charred timbers and piles of rubble were all that remained of a building that dated back to the early 1900s.

Only weeks before the fire, the Texas State Historical Commission approved an application for a historical marker to be placed at the church. The marker was going to be placed on the east part of Main Street in an area that would be highly visible to community members and visitors.

Lost in the fire was the building and all its contents, including the 36 stained glass windows given in memory and honor of various teachers and church leaders as well as the pipe organ that was purchased from Moler Pipe Organ Co. of Chicago in 1913. The organ was repaired and restored in 1992 at a cost of $30,000.

Mary Snell, who serves as the church’s clerk of session, has developed quite an affection for the historic landmark through the years.

“Among fond memories of the building are the beautiful woodwork, the baptismal font, the grandeur of the stained glass windows and the sweet sounds of the pipe organ,” said Snell, whose husband’s great-grandfather helped unload the pipe organ when it arrived at the train depot 90 years ago. “Easters, Christmases, Vacation Bible Schools and occasions of special services were heart-warming, especially listening to the service and looking at the windows.  You could imagine you were peeking into Heaven.”

Three days after the fire, members of Main Street Presbyterian Church joined with the congregation of McKenzie United Methodist Church for an Ash Wednesday service.

Members have been meeting in a vacant church building just down the street from the site their historic house of worship once stood, a plot of land that had been referred to as their “sacred ground.”

The congregation, part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination, has a membership of 59 with worship attendance between 20-30 each week. Many of them feel they have lost more than stained glass windows, an organ and a building.

“Seeing the church in flames was devastating because so much of my life was built and influenced from within those walls,” longtime member Brittany Whitlock told The Paris News.

Malinda Allison, the church historian, also noted the significance of the church’s destruction, not only for members but the town of Honey Grove.

“It is heartbreaking, not only for the congregation but for the entire community to lose this beautiful building,” she said. “Many former Honey Grove residents and descendants of Honey Grove residents have contacted members of the church to share in the grief, including many who participated in weddings and attended funerals in the church.”

Snell said the congregation, while small in number, is steeped in tradition, and the church has had tremendous meaning for the membership through the years. She indicated that tradition and meaning is what will linger in the hearts of members, even with the loss of the landmark church.

“The church is not a building – a church is people,” Snell said. “We’re going to be OK.”

Plans for the future of the congregation have not been determined just yet. Grace Presbytery, which serves 164 churches, has established a five-person ministry team to work with the Main Street congregation.

Jan DeVries, the general presbyter, said the lightning strike and ensuing fire took away a landmark in the town of Honey Grove and from members of the church.

“They had an amazing pipe organ and those beautiful stained glass windows,” she said. “It really was a beautiful little church, really a historic landmark. We’re grateful no one was injured.”

DeVries added that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) also has been contacted and is assisting the presbytery as it works with the congregation to determine what lies ahead.

“The temptation is to want to rebuild in the same spot, but we really don’t know what lies ahead,” DeVries said. “You don’t want to make all your decisions right away. They will have to decide what is best.”

The Rev. Jim Hawthorne, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Denison, Texas, said the ministry team will be meeting with the members of Main Street Presbyterian on March 10 to determine what route to take for the future of the church. He said the church leadership is assessing the situation and waiting for an insurance settlement to help determine a vision for the future.

“The loss will have a tremendous impact. I’m sure it is something that will have a lasting effect,” Hawthorne said. “It’s a very old, historic building with beautiful stained glass windows and a pipe organ that can’t be replaced. The members have seen their children married there, babies baptized there, been to funerals of friends and loved ones at the church. There are a lot of memories, and putting back another building won’t take care of them.”

Hawthorne said the ministry team is simply trying to address needs of the Main Street Presbyterian congregation.

“We want to make ourselves available in any way,” he said. “We’re here to grieve with them. While it’s not the same for us as it is them, this is a loss for our presbytery. We want to walk with them and be there for support and encouragement, to help them respond in a way that initiates healing.”

There already has been an outpouring of support shown for Main Street Presbyterian Church, from churches and individuals in the areas surrounding Honey Grove and across the country. Monetary contributions have been made, and pulpit furniture has been donated.

A memorial building fund for Main Street Presbyterian has been established at Patriot Bank (201 West Main Street, Honey Grove, TX 75446). In addition, monetary contributions or donations of other kinds to the church can be made through Grace Presbytery, 6100 Colwell Blvd., St. 100, Irving, TX 75039-3148, or by calling 214-630-4502 or 800-678-4502. Checks should be made to Grace Presbytery but designated for Main Street Presbyterian Church.