Damaged Churches

Anne Martin and Thomas Subranni, both of Longport, look over charred books Monday from the Church of the Redeemer in Longport, which was destroyed in a fire during the derecho storm in June.

Staff photo by Michael Ein

Two local churches face a Christmas with no building to call their own after calamitous fires this year.

There will be no holiday service this year at In His Presence Worship Center in Millville, which was gutted by a blaze Saturday, and no concert at the Church of the Redeemer in Longport, which was demolished after a fire in June.

Both congregations are looking to rebuild — and the experiences of several other area churches, at different points on the long road back, can be a guide.

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“I’m not sure what we’re going to do for a Christmas service,” said In His Presence elder Willie McRae, of Bridgeton.

While the congregation has met at the Cornbread House, McRae’s Bridgeton restaurant, since the blaze, he didn’t know what the future held.

For parishioners and clergy, it was all too soon to think about rebuilding after a fire that kept firefighters busy for eight hours, according to Millville Fire Chief Kurt Hess. But they knew they would have to start their work soon.

“We’re just going to take it one day at a time,” McRae said. “That’s all we can do. We’re definitely going to go forward and not look back.”

In Longport, nothing remains of the sanctuary of Church of the Redeemer after the fire that gutted the structure in the midst of the June 30 derecho storm, but plans for its rebuilding are already under way. Several groups have donated funds to help in the effort, and Longport historian Michael Cohen and board of trustees chairman Tom Subranni say the new building will be a perfect reconstruction of the lost 104-year-old church.

Subranni said groundbreaking is planned for Feb. 4 and that they have all the necessary approvals and permits in hand. But the annual Christmas concert scheduled for Dec. 6 could not be held.

“We’ll miss most of next season,” he said. “But we hope to have the bishop’s consecration of the church in late fall of 2014.”

In the meantime, he said, “there are some people who have been missing church. A lot of the congregation travels home to their hometowns, and the local folks have been seeking and visiting other churches, I’m sure.”

“They’re going all over,” added Cohen. “Christ Episcopal Church in Somers Point, the Ventnor Episcopal Church (of the Epiphany), and some go to Margate Community Church.”

The experiences of two churches destroyed by fire just weeks apart in summer 2011 show how different the hard work of rebuilding can be.

First Assembly of God in Millville has completely rebuilt after the fire that gutted its building in August 2011.

“We were displaced for more than a year,” pastor Joseph Green said. “During that year, we saw a change in the congregation and saw a lot of new people coming to church.”

After a nearly $1 million renovation, he said the building looks “totally new.”

“Pretty much everything had to be replaced,” Green said. “We’ve just been enjoying the last few months after we’ve settled back into our home.”

For the South Seaville United Methodist Church in Dennis Township, however, progress has been slower since its fire in June 2011.

“Insurance has been dragging their feet,” said pastor Thomas Perry, who was amazed at First Assembly’s progress. “We’re in the process of getting final approvals for the site after completing the drawings. The designs have been approved and everything’s OK, and we should be breaking ground around March.”

As they wait for their house of worship to be rebuilt, he said, their ministries continue. The congregation has even sent food to Tuckerton to help victims of Sandy.

“It’s the same as always,” he said. “The food bank was moved over to our garage, out of a garden shed. We’re feeding four families this Christmas, and we’ll probably feed one more family just coming on this morning.”

Perry said the church’s mission hasn’t changed, although it’s location has.

“Really nothing has changed for us,” he said. “Our mission is what we do.”

Sometimes, rebuilding can take years, as Graves Temple Church of God in Christ has learned. After the structure’s destruction by fire in 2004, the congregation is still working to complete reconstruction work.

“It took a long time, but we’re just about finishing now,” pastor Benjamin Graves said. “All of the inside work is done, but it’s going to take another $150,000 to do the outside work.”

The process has been hampered by the economic downturn. Graves said the banks won’t lend money to nonprofits such as the church.

Green said In His Presence and Redeemer need to stand together however long it takes.

“I was out in front of the church when it was burning, with pastor (David) Ennis,” he said. “What I said to him was, first and foremost, we’ll stand with them.”

First Assembly would offer anything it could to help its fellow Millville church, Green said, adding that patience is the key:

“God’s heart is still in that church, and its guiding pastor.”

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