Parishioners of In His Presence Worship Center in Millville had been planning a Christmas dinner for the less fortunate at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Instead, they gathered on Broad Street and watched as flames destroyed the building they had spent years renovating and turning into a sanctuary for the city’s poor.

“It’s just … it’s just beyond words,” said church elder Willie McRae, who was cooking a turkey and other fixings at his Fairfield Township home when he got the news. “It’s something that you never really think about happening.”

Millville Fire Chief Kurt Hess said the fire started about noon and was brought under control three hours later. No injuries were reported, he said, but firefighters continued working throughout the afternoon to extinguish a few smoldering hot spots in the rubble.

“We’re just still in the process overall,” he said about 3:30 p.m.

A cause had yet to be determined, Hess said. Church officials said they believed it might have been electrical.

The Rev. David Ennis, who founded the nondenominational church 10 years ago, said early reports indicated Saturday’s high winds blew a piece of flashing against an adjacent power line. The resulting sparks may have set the blaze. The National Weather Service had issued an advisory for winds between 20 and 25 mph for most of the day.

“We’ll have to come together as a church family and find out where we stand,” said Ennis, 47, a Millville resident. “We have to spend some time praying and seek the will of God to see where we go from here.”

Ennis said about 200 people, many of them members of the congregation, had gathered Saturday to watch the blaze.

“There’s a lot of crying, a lot of sadness,” he said.

The congregation began at a Christian bookstore on North High Street and spent 18 months at the former Red Carpet Inn before moving to the Broad Street location. Since then, he said, the congregation had pulled together to completely renovate the building — everything from a fresh coat of paint to a new roof.

“It’s not just me,” he said. “It’s the people; a lot of labor’s gone into it.”

Ennis and his congregation are known for their work in the community. The church has offered various programs, including a food pantry and ministries for disadvantaged men, women and youths.

An outspoken opponent of violence in Millville, Ennis went to stores and bought handgun ammunition without proper documentation after his brother’s shooting death in 2006. He held a news conference to show how easily criminals can obtain it. The church has also held a number of community meetings about crime in the city.

Ennis said the loss was heartbreaking.

“A lot of things in this building mean a lot to me,” he said. “We have insurance and all those things, but it doesn’t recover the time and labor and memorabilia.”

His wife, Starr Ennis, was also shaken by the fire.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen from this point,” she said. “We’re just going to let the Lord lead us to what’s to be done next.”

The congregation, however, will move on.

David Ennis said Sunday service would be held at 10 a.m. today at the Cornbread House, McRae’s Bridgeton restaurant. McRae said the outreach dinner likely would continue as well, after services at his restaurant.

“I think it’s going to be service as usual,” McRae said. “It won’t be in our sanctuary, but we’ll still be a church. We’ll still lift up the name of Jesus like normal.”

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

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