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Church celebrates decade since fire

February 11, 2011

Ten years ago, members of St. John's Lutheran Church in Conover huddled together for an impromptu worship service at 3 a.m. in the church gym.

They had just watched their church — the building reserved for life's most intimate and precious moments — go up in flames.

Now, a decade later, church members are celebrating their growing congregation, church facilities and profound recovery from two devastating fires in 51 years. The church will hold two anniversary services Feb. 20 at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

"It's not just going to be, 'Gee, wasn't that terrible?'" said the Rev. Scott Johnson, St. John's senior pastor. "It's really going to be a celebration of the goodness of God."

Feb. 21, 2001
A report of a structure fire reached Conover Fire Department about 1:30 a.m. Feb. 21, 2001.

Lifelong St. John's member Paul Yount, 70, of Conover, responded to the fire and was devastated to learn the building engulfed in flames was his church.

"It was just a hopeless feeling," Yount said. "I could see the flames from my house."

The fire started in a hallway in the church building, then spread outward. Johnson's office was burned, and other buildings, such as classrooms and meeting rooms, were blackened from smoke and fire damage.

Eventually, the fire reached what Johnson called the building's "heart and soul" — the sanctuary.

"I really thought we could control the fire from getting into the sanctuary," said Conover firefighter and St. John's member Dwight Rockett, 68, of Conover. "It was a helpless feeling. You can squirt a little water on it, but you just watch it burn."

Johnson arrived about 2 a.m. to find the building's roof on fire and several church members gathered in the parking lot across the street to watch their church burn from a safe distance.

As the hours wore on, church members and area residents arrived at St. John's until more than 100 people gathered together. Many people, undoubtedly, were thinking, "Not again."

That February night was the second time in 51 years that St. John's burned. The first fire happened March 17, 1950, and the building was rebuilt in 1951. The church's bell tower survived both fires and still stands as part of the church today.

As the fire reached the sanctuary, people gathered outside moved into the church gymnasium, which is separate from the church, about 3 a.m., praying and crying together.

This church was the place where children were baptized, couples were married and loved ones were laid to rest. And at that moment, it was gone.

Amidst the pain, Johnson reminded his congregation that God has a plan, and God will help them through their difficulties.

"To me, it was profound," Johnson said of the church's intimate 3 a.m. service. "It was beautiful."

'The church is still here'

Services continued as usual at St. John's after Feb. 21, 2001. Worship services and other meetings were held in the church's gym.

"Those first few weeks, everybody was hurting," Johnson said. "But we came together."

Every ministry the church participated in before the fire continued after the blaze, just in a different way. People who sat in the same pew for most of their lives mingled together in the gym, where church members worshiped on folding chairs instead of wooden pews.

"You were greeting and talking to different people," Johnson said. "The level of intimacy among the congregation increased."

Outside, the church's marquee sign said simply, "The building is gone, but the church is still here."

The church no longer had a sanctuary, but it had members who continued to serve and worship.

"Everyone wanted to help and pitch in any way they could," Johnson said.

"We gained a lot of members while we were sitting on folding chairs in the gym."

Meanwhile, the church started a building committee, co-chaired by Yount and Harold Baker, 72, of Conover.

The committee had the immense task of repairing, redesigning and rebuilding the sanctuary and church buildings, some of which were essentially gutted down to concrete and brick.

The committee started with damaged office buildings and classrooms. They didn't replicate the building exactly, but added updates, such as an additional stairwell, and rearranged some of the building spaces.

Church members celebrated a rededication of that building in fall 2001, about seven months after the blaze. Rebuilding the sanctuary took considerably longer.

"You wanted to please everyone," Baker said. "We wanted to get it right."

The building committee issued a survey to the congregation to determine what they wanted and needed in a new sanctuary.

St. John's members overwhelmingly agreed on one thing.

"You know what everyone wanted? They wanted the old sanctuary back," Johnson said. "... So that's what we did."

The new sanctuary was designed with the old building in mind — exposed beams, vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows.

The sanctuary opened in November 2003. About 700 people attended the first service, filling the sanctuary beyond capacity. Some people were forced to watch the service on closed-circuit TV in another room in the church.

"I couldn't get in," Rockett said. "We had a lot of visitors."

A blessing in disguise

On a bleak February night 10 years ago, it was hard for any St. John's member to understand that the fire was a blessing in disguise.

But now, Johnson said the church and its congregation is stronger than ever.

"I look to the future of St. John's, and I get excited," he said. "It's like when you finish that marathon. You cross that finish line, and you're worn out, but you're excited."

Rockett agreed.

"The sky's the limit," he said.

Investigators never determined just what caused the fire. They know only that it started in a hallway, and it wasn't arson.

For Johnson, what caused the fire isn't as important as what happened to the congregation as a result. The church will never forget the kindness it was shown from area churches, businesses and individuals as it recovered from the fire. Members, in turn, collect offerings for other churches suffering from fire damage.

The church participated in more than 25 short-term mission trips to New Orleans, Alaska and Russia.

"We want to make a difference in other parts of the world," Johnson said.

The sanctuary and church building incorporate the buildings' past with its future, infusing some of the church's past pain with promise of a brighter future.

"People walk in the sanctuary," Yount said, "and they say, 'This is St. John's."

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