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Strasburg Presbyterian thankful for support from community after fire

Strasburg Presbyterian Church pastor David Howard stands outside the church's new addition that was recently completed in September. A fire damaged the church in July 2011. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Virgil Sturgeon, chairman of Strasburg Presbyterian Church's building and property committee, stands inside the church's new kitchen. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Strasburg Presbyterian Church pastor David Howard, left, stands inside the church's narthex while finance committee chairman Harry Propst demonstrates the chair and wheelchair lift. The church, which also has an elevator, is handicapped accessible. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Strasburg Presbyterian Church pastor David Howard leans on an old ladder back chair that were restored from the 2011 fire. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Josette Keelor

More than two years after a devastating fire tore through the church building at Strasburg Presbyterian Church, construction has been completed, but rebuilding efforts continue.

The Rev. David Howard recalls when the building's architect told him, "You've been through a fire, but you didn't go through the Civil War."

He was talking about the current congregation, but ironically the church itself not only made it through the Civil War but was the only church in Strasburg to survive. Other churches in town had to rebuild.

"We did host them," Howard said, "as Judge [Dennis Lee] Hupp reminded us at the time of our dedication service; he said, 'David, be sure and remind them that our Presbyterians here in town hosted the [other] congregations as they were rebuilding their church structures."

"We're grateful for the building, but we know ultimately at the end of the day, the church is the people," he said.

They lost more than use of the building after the accidental electrical fire that started in the Christian Education Building's main floor kitchen on July 2, 2011. With the decision to spend so much money rebuilding and the physical hardship that came with it, the fire also cost Strasburg Presbyterian membership.

"I think the fire was a catalyst for some people to reconsider who they were and where they were at," Howard said, "and yet we are so grateful that so many people were willing to walk the extra mile with us because, when you think about it, we're just now getting back into our building approaching two and a half years.

"And I think it was a spiritual struggle for some people," he said, "But for all of those people that stuck by us, who were willing to make that kind of commitment to say we are people of faith, we are people of good will, we are people of commitment, that takes real backbone. ... and so we're thankful that they had the tenacity to stay with this project."

Through it all Howard said the community has been there for the church.

How to rebuild has always been a big question, said Virgil Sturgeon, chairman in charge of the building and properties committee. At the time of the fire, the church had been raising funds to fix the heating system and add a porch to the sanctuary, but rebuilding later also meant bringing the 1927 Christian Education building and the 1830 church up to code.

They had no way of accommodating the handicapped, he said. The wiring wasn't up to code, and in the end they even had to replace the sewer system to the town lot.

But first responders gave them hope, Howard said. People like Gary Grant of Borden Lumber in Strasburg, who opened his store late that Saturday night in July so the church would have plywood for boarding up windows. It was the first of many offerings that poured in from the community.

"These were some of the people who bent over backwards and they were helping us out just out of good will and support," Howard said. "You can't buy that much help and assistance."

As Sturgeon put it, "I always said it was a God thing."

The church found its best bid with Kee Construction in Winchester, which added a fire corridor in the Christian Education Building with magnetic fire doors on all three floors that automatically close if the fire alarm sounds and prevents a fire from spreading from the main floor kitchen into the rest of the building. New electrical wiring is encased in metal conduit, Sturgeon said, and the building's chronic water damage and mold problems in the basement have been remediated with an outdoor trench and sump pump

The building now has five handicapped-accessible bathrooms and an elevator that reaches all three floors. A chair lift in the narthex can move a wheelchair up four steps to the sanctuary where another emergency fire door opens out into the narthex instead of into the sanctuary as the old door did.

Sturgeon said it cost $860,000 to rebuild, refurbish and clean the two buildings after the fire, and that insurance paid more than $600,000, though it was tough to estimate.

There was significant damage to the sanctuary, Howard said -- "everything from the walls, new carpeting, all of the pews, all of the furnishings inside the sanctuary."

The pipe organ alone was $60,000 to take apart and clean from smoke damage, and Sturgeon said it took almost another $10,000 with reinstallation costs.

He said he hopes the church will pay back the $500,000 they financed from First Bank within the next 10 years.

Howard said the church's place along the upcoming Strasburg Holiday Heritage Homes Tour on Dec. 14 will be like a grand opening for much of the community, and he invites everyone out to tour the new building and enjoy refreshments.

"We've got a lot to be thankful for," he said.

For more information about Strasburg Presbyterian Church on South Holliday Street, Strasburg, call 540-465-3920 or visit www.strasburgpresbyterian.org.

Contact Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com

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