Pre-dawn fire destroys church
No foul play suspected in blaze at over 100-year-old rural parish in Chesterfield
A small country church that was more than 100 years old burned to the ground Monday in far western Chesterfield County in a pre-dawn fire that brought stunned congregation members to the scene to survey the destruction.
No one was injured. The one-story frame church building and basement were vacant at the time.
Chesterfield Fire & EMS crews were called at 4:05 a.m. for a structure fire at Centenary United Methodist Church at 11211 Beaver Bridge Road in Chesterfield’s Winterpock area.
“When our units arrived on the scene, they were confronted with basically a building with fire extended through the roof area,” said Chesterfield Battalion Chief Bryan Swanson.
Because the church is situated in a largely rural area without fire hydrants, fire crews had to transport water to the scene in four tanker trucks — three from Chesterfield and one from Amelia. The tanker trucks filled with water were dispatched with the initial alarm, Swanson said.
Fire crews also used a natural pond up the road to refill the water tanks as needed, Swanson said.
“It changes how we do business, (but) we’re kind of practiced on rural water supply,” the chief said of the challenges fire crews faced. “It looks and feels a little bit different, so instead of laying a supply line and fire hose down the road, we just bring in bigger vehicles and basically set up our own (portable folding) pond in the parking lot.”
“There wasn’t a problem with water, it just wasn’t readily available,” Swanson added. The process “takes additional manpower and staff.”
Roughly 28 firefighters were called to fight the blaze. In addition to the water
trucks, four fire engines and one ladder truck responded to the scene.
Church members began arriving at the scene early to assess the damage and support and console one another.
The Rev. Pennie Foy, who has led the church for about five years, said the congregation has about 75 members, with about 30 who show up regularly for Sunday services.
“The church was built in the 1800s,” Foy said at the scene. “We do a lot of good here. We’re honestly like a community church, full of outreach.
“We’re like a family,” Foy continued. “As you see, people who have gathered as soon as they heard are lifting each other up and comforting each other — truly the body of Christ. So even though we’ve lost our building, we have not lost the church itself.”
Foy said the first thing that went through her mind when she heard about the fire was how the congregation would react.
“Many people have grown up in this church, and so for them it would be a loss,” Foy said. “It’s not the loss of Christ or their belief in God, but where they’ve grown up. This is where they’ve gone to church, this is where they’ve served for so many years. There are so many stories — where they’ve been baptized, where their children were baptized, where they were married.”
“So there are so many memories here, and for them, it’s like a grieving process that we’re going to have to go through,” she said.
Although the building — which has 3,000 square feet on the first floor and a basement of similar size — is a total loss, Swanson said crews were able to contain the fire from spreading to two nearby homes and prevent a propane tank at the rear of the building from exploding.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. Fire investigators and a representative from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on site Monday.
“We have no reason at this time to think it is suspicious,” said Lt. Jason Elmore, a fire department spokesman. “The ATF is involved as normal protocol for them and church fires.”
The precise age of the church was unclear. Foy said it dates to the 1880s, while a marker on the burned-out building says 1916 — but that may not be the original structure. County real estate assessment records for the church only go back to 1947.
“It was just a nice country church,” said church member Kathi Brooks. “We’re a small congregation. Everybody was friendly, a lot like family.”
Foy said the congregation plans to continue holding services but a new location has not yet been determined.
A prayer service was scheduled for Monday evening at the nearby Bethia United Methodist Church, Foy said.
Chesterfield firefighters worked on putting out the fire at Centenary United Methodist Church on Beaver Bridge Road.
The church’s one-story frame building was a total loss, but crews were able to stop the fire from spreading to two nearby homes and a propane tank. The precise age of the church was unclear, but the pastor said it dates back to the 1880s and a marker on the building said 1916.
The pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Chesterfield said the congregation has about 75 members, with about 30 regulars.