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Florida sanctuary gutted by early-morning fire before Christmas

Posted: 12/26/07

Florida sanctuary gutted by
early-morning fire before Christmas

By Greg Warner

Associated Baptist Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (ABP)—The 50-year-old sanctuary of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., was totally destroyed by fire two days before Christmas.

When the first of 70 firefighters arrived on the scene about 5 a.m. Sunday morning, flames were shooting out of the roof, an official said. Firefighters poured 300,000 gallons of water on the blaze before bringing it under control 90 minutes later.

Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., burned two days before Christmas.

Although they were unable to salvage any part of the 10,000-square-foot sanctuary, firefighters kept the flames from spreading to other church structures. There was significant water damage to the adjacent church offices.

When the sun came up, only part of the brick walls and the heat-twisted steel frame of the roof remained. No cause for the fire has been determined. An arson-investigation unit representing local, state and federal agencies was called in—standard procedure in the case of church fires.

Fire officials estimated the damage at $2.5 million. The building is insured for at least $2 million, a church official said.

A ladder crew still was spraying water down on the smoldering ruins as somber members gathered in the church’s gymnasium at 11 a.m. to worship and comfort one another. They sang hymns and prayed during the abbreviated Christmas service.

Members of neighboring churches and former members joined them to share their grief, crowding the gym to capacity.

A nearby Dunkin Donuts provided breakfast. And members of All Saints Episcopal Church nearby brought food for an impromptu lunch after the service.

Several other nearby churches have already offered their facilities for worship during the recovery, said Pastor Kyle Reese, who has been at Hendricks Ave. only a year and a half. Reese served previously as pastor of First Baptist Church in San Angelo.

"In our strategic planning process, we've been trying to think of ways to reach out and embrace our community, but this morning we've seen how our community has reached out and embraced us," Reese told worshippers during the service.

Asking why and worrying about the future are normal responses in such times of tragedy, he said, but "I can't help but look at the hope candle we light on this Advent and be hopeful."

Brett Foster, minister of youth and currently the longest-tenured ministerial staffer, offered an emotion-filled prayer, recalling countless weddings, baptisms, baby dedications, concerts, funerals and worship experiences that had taken place in the sanctuary. Those memories don't exist only in the building but "continue to exist and are still real to us," Foster said through tears.

The 750-seat sanctuary, completed in 1958, celebrated the congregation's devotion to sacred music and included a 48-rank pipe organ added in 1989 and a rare harpsichord. The night before the fire, the sanctuary hosted a benefit performance of Handel's "Messiah" by Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra musicians, who have been locked out of their performance hall since November in a labor dispute.

The highlight of a remodeling of the sanctuary in 2000 was the full-height, stained-glass window that dominated the front wall—an image of "The Welcoming Christ," whose open arms greeted worshipers as well as travelers along busy Hendricks Ave. The window, the largest in Florida, was completely destroyed.

The window and organ were part of original plans for the church, which was founded in 1946. The congregation delayed construction of a sanctuary for more than a decade for financial reasons, instead building its ministry around an elaborate recreation program, perhaps the first of its kind for a church in the United States.

The gymnasium, centerpiece of the recreation program, was the congregation's first building and housed worship for the first 12 years.

"Ironically, here we are 61 years later," Reese told parishioners gathered in the gym Dec. 23, "back where we started."

Reese said he is convinced the congregation will move ahead with determination and hope. Many other members echoed his confidence.

Looking over the damage, longtime member Debbie Barnes said such tragedies have a way of overshadowing a congregation's struggles and differences. "A lot of those things are going to be put into perspective," she said, allowing the congregation "to put God's will in the forefront."

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