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Home for Christmas: Church damaged by fire will temporarily host services again

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David Howard, pastor of Strasburg Presbyterian Church, stands in the parlor of the church’s educational wing, which was damaged by fire in July.

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Richard Alford, general manager of Lewis and Hitchcock Inc. of Beltsville, Md., works on the electrical system of Strasburg Presbyterian Church’s pipe organ. The organ is scheduled to be completed for Christmas Eve services.

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Zinc pipes from the organ are waiting to be reinstalled inside the sanctuary of Strasburg Presbyterian Church. The church is slowly being renovated after a July fire this year did heavy damage. Rich Cooley/Daily

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The view looking east through one of Strasburg Presbyterian Church’s new windows includes Signal Knob.

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com
STRASBURG -- A banner outside Strasburg Presbyterian Church in Strasburg reads "Prayers and blessings for our caring community."

According to pastor David Howard, "That's what we want for all the other folks here in the area."

In the months following a July 2 fire that ravaged the nearly 182-year-old building, the church community has seen continuous acts of kindness both from its own members hoping to rebuild and from its neighbors wanting only to be of some help.

"I can tell you it's a very emotional thing to think about," Howard said. "I believe it has brought us closer together as a congregation."

Once used as a makeshift hospital during the Civil War, the church has seen many renovations over the years, including the addition of the Christian education building in 1927.

"In terms of town history, this deed is a very significant place," Howard said. An obelisk in the church's cemetery, dating to 1896 and placed by the Stover Camp No. 20 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, marks the resting site of 136 Civil War soldiers, he said. It also is the site of the Signal Knob Civil War trellis marker.

Hard work over the last six months has made it possible for the church to offer holiday services this month, the first in the church since before the fire.

Christmas services will be close to how they usually are, but Howard said there will be some changes.

"One thing that we're doing this year that we have not done in prior years ... for our first service, we are going to have our children's Christmas pageant," he said. The service will include carols and hymns and a candlelight Communion service.

"I know our people are really looking forward to this," he said. "We typically have our Christmas pageant earlier in the advent season."

The church acquired temporary occupancy permits from the town to use the building for Christmas and New Year's Day services, Howard said.

Despite reconstruction and cleaning efforts, the church still is a long way from being restored to daily use, and until continuous restrooms are on site, the congregation is restricted from occupying the church long-term, he said.

Church services, education classes, choir rehearsals and church meetings have been taking place at the Strasburg Community Center on Queen Street, Howard said.

"For the services, for Christmas and New Year's, we will be using Porta Potties," he said.

Ruled an accidental electrical fire in the kitchenette area of the building, the fire itself caused much of its damage on the main floor, Howard said.

"We had not only considerable fire damage to the Christian education building with smoke damage as well, but we had heavy smoke damage here to the sanctuary," he said.

Church members were on site for a yard party when the fire occurred, Howard said. Some members preparing Communion for the following day quickly learned of the fire, and no one was hurt.

"It did heavy damage to our church parlor," he said, indicating blackened walls on the basement level by the kitchenette.

"You can see how heavily burnt and charred those doors are," he said. Behind the doors were the choir robes, which were ruined from heat damage.

"We're in the process of replacing those items," he said. "We were able to save most if not all of our music, our choir music." The hymnals, however, will have to be replaced, and the education building will take many more months to be safe for use, he said.
For now his main concern is restoring the sanctuary.

"That's why this part here has not been touched," he said of the downstairs.
"We do not have a specific date in mind when the Christian education building will be finished," he said. He also does not have a cost estimate of the damage yet.

"The insurance claim has not been settled yet. ... They hope in the next month or two to get an estimate," Howard said.

Because the fire occurred during the summer, he said, rising heat from the fire caused other problems when it met with the cold of the air conditioning.

"We had condensation coming down the walls that has caused considerable damage with the plaster," he said.

Smoke and water from fire hoses did plenty of damage on its own, though.

"The water damage was significant," Howard said. "So the kitchen had to be totally removed. ... We lost all of our appliances and we lost all of our cabinets."

In the sanctuary, "All of the pews, all of our carpeting was stripped," Howard said. The pipe organ was moved to Maryland to be cleaned and refurbished, and cushions all had to be removed while the pews were refinished, primed and repainted.

It took three men six hours to clean the sanctuary chandeliers by hand, doing each of the crystals individually, Howard said.

"We hope to have the pipe organ returned to the sanctuary by Christmas Eve," he said. Currently, parts of the organ are spread around the room until they can be reconstructed.
"They're continuing to put the pipe organ together," Howard said. He expects the final tuning to happen next week.

"We've got the carpeting in, the pews in, the pipe organ will be installed around mid-week next week," Howard said.

Having so much of the process completed in time for Christmas, he said, will make the long term project seem that much more achievable.

"It's going to be a real boost of encouragement," he said.

Besides receiving aid from other Presbyterian churches, Howard said, the church has welcomed communications and financial support from Methodist, Lutheran, Brethren and Christian churches, as well as the Disciples of Christ -- "and a number of independent churches," he said.

"We continue to receive love and support," he said. "We are most grateful for the prayer support."

Within the church, too, members have been hard at work raising money and continuing the church's mission of faith.

Faith Utz, 11, and her mother Ellen Utz, of Strasburg, organized one of the most successful fundraisers so far.

"It was just a bake sale," Ellen Utz said, but the event she and Faith ran in front of the town hall on Nov. 23 brought in more than $700.

"She was just adamant that she wanted to do this bake sale," Utz said. "Without a moment's hesitation, the town said, 'Yeah, you can have this bake sale.'"

Faith made the posters, and her mother asked friends to spread the word on Facebook.
The congregation pitched in, with Faith's friend Sabrina Bauserman, 9, helping, and Shayla Wharton and her daughter, Nancy, taking over the sale when the Utzes were on break.

"They were a Godsend," Utz said, remarking on the cold, windy day before Thanksgiving.
What she found even more moving, though, was the help from other community members.
"People from all over town who don't regularly attend the church baked things," she said.
"People just flocked to us. It was amazing, you know, the whole community has been just amazing since the getgo."

At Thanksgiving and Christmas the church normally puts together food boxes for needy families in the community, but this year members faced the prospect of not having any place to facilitate the project -- that is, until St. Paul's Lutheran Church offered its annex building, said Utz, a member of the Witness and Service Committee at Strasburg Presbyterian.

"It would have been very sad if we wouldn't have been able to do that," she said.
Howard said the church currently does not have any upcoming fundraisers planned, but they are in the process of considering opportunities.

"There were families and individuals in the community that have contributed anonymously," he said. Local businesses have made resources available, and even offers of storage space have brought the congregation hope for seeing it through a time of such uncertainty.

"We can never begin to thank everyone who has come forward to show their support," Howard said.

A lot of unexpected expenses will be covered by the church's insurance, he said.
"Fire insurance has been a very important thing," Howard said. "We are thankful for good fire insurance."

For many, Christmas is a season of hope and charity, but this year members of Strasburg Presbyterian Church have more keenly felt the joy and humility that come with receiving gifts of generosity so greatly needed.

"People have not only been praying for us, but people have been very sacrificial in giving love gifts," Howard said. He's grateful for the gifts of charity, but more so for the prayers, which he says have come from churches in Winchester, Berryville, Woodstock, Mount Olive, Toms Brook, Staunton and Elkton and even the West Virginia towns of Charles Town and Martinsburg.

"It's been phenomenal," he said. "We are simply amazed at the many ways people have gone out of their way ... and it has been an inspiration to us."

For information, contact the Strasburg Presbyterian Church office at 465-3920 or at spcoff@shentel.net.

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