Fire Causes Roof Collapse At Chase Church

August 29, 2009|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,brent.jones@baltsun.com

In 1972, Lewis Foust and a group of men built a new sanctuary at one of Baltimore County's oldest churches, more than doubling its size.

The task took months and had its share of setbacks, but when it was complete, Foust had a sense of accomplishment that never waned - until Friday, when he saw his work destroyed by fire.

"That's really the hurtful part - to see what you have done just gone," Foust said in the parking lot of the Sharp Street United Methodist Church in Chase.

A two-alarm fire early Friday caused the roof of the sanctuary to collapse. No one was injured, but 10-foot-high stained-glass windows were shattered. The building was charred, and a smoky odor remained in the air for hours as church members came by to observe the damage.

Investigators said the fire started about 3:30 a.m. at the church in the 11800 block of Eastern Ave. They have not determined the cause but said lightning could have sparked the blaze.

The Rev. Valerie Barnes, the church's pastor for 10 years, said she is unsure where services will be held Sunday.

"What are we going to do on Sunday? We're going to give thanks to God," Barnes said. "And if the weather is good, we're going to come out in this parking lot and do so. Worship will go on."

If confirmed as a lightning strike, it would be the third such case involving a local historic church over the past two years.

The 140-year-old First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church in West Baltimore was destroyed by a fire sparked by lightning in July 2007, and Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Druid Hill Avenue was hit by lightning last month. The Bethel congregation will return to its church Sunday after holding services at Temple Oheb Shalom on Park Heights Avenue while the building was repaired.

Barnes said Sharp Street United Methodist was founded 145 years ago and is widely viewed as the oldest church in Chase. The congregation has about 30 active members.

"This is not anything that I expected, and certainly not something I'd hoped. But it's in God's plans," Barnes said.

Foust has attended the church for five decades and remembers when services were held in what is now the fellowship hall. The hall sustained little damage beyond a collapsed drop ceiling.

"I started coming here with some friends, then it became family," Foust said. "It has to do with the congregation. We've been small, good-sized, and now we're back small again."

Members say the congregation is made up of mostly older members. LoReal Russell of Rosedale, one of the younger worshipers, said she grew up in the church. Her great-grandfather was a member in the early 1900s, and her grandmother attends regularly.

Russell shook her head as she surveyed the charred church Friday morning on her way home to break the news to her grandmother.

"I'm 34, and I've had to deal with a lot of death lately," she said. "This is just another one of those things that makes me stronger. You wake up and sometimes you're faced with destruction. You've just got to deal with it."

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