Six months after the fire that destroyed the first building, Union Chapel Free Will Baptist Church has broken ground on a new structure.
Church members gathered at the site where the church once stood, and where they said they hope they will be able to worship in the new one within a year, on Sunday morning after the church service.
Church members from the youngest, 4-year-old Kentleigh Dunbar, to the oldest, 86-year-old Charlotte Cutshaw gathered outside for the ceremony before gathering for lunch.
“Thanksgiving day was six months to the day,” said Pastor Lynn Neas.
The fire on May 25 was attributed to an undetermined electrical failure, Neas said. Greene County Sheriff Wesley Holt said in May that the damage from the fire was too extensive for investigators to determine a point of origin, beyond that it appeared to originate in the church attic, but that no foul play was suspected.
“I was devastated, but I listened to the people, and they’re resilient. They said, ‘we can do this,’” Neas said, reflecting on the day of the fire.
Neas said at the time, and reiterated on Sunday, that he was and is thankful no one was hurt in the blaze.
“There was about three different instances where someone could have died,” he said Sunday. “We had a woman in the church cleaning who was called away, so she wasn’t inside when the fire started. Then the firefighters could have been trapped inside, and they lost some cameras, but they got out before the building came down, and when the rest of the building fell and the brick wall slid down, it could have hurt someone, but it didn’t.”
Longtime church member and trustee Eddie Roher recalled rushing to the church when he learned of the fire, he said primarily to check on Neas and anyone else he was concerned could have been inside.
“It was a heavy blow, but I said we will rebuild, and I meant that,” Rohrer said.
The day after the fire, Rohrer was among those to venture inside what remained of the church to check for anything salvageable. He found an unharmed collection plate that day, but said Sunday few other items could be recovered.
“Most of it was damaged from smoke or water,” Rohrer said.
In addition to the collection plate, the church’s historical documents, Neas’ family photos pressed under a glass top on his desk in the old church and a peace lily were recovered.
Neas said the new building will be metal and “virtually fireproof.”
He said the project will cost just over $1 million and, pending delays related to supply chain issues, Neas said he hopes his congregation of about 40 will be able to worship in the new building within a year.
In the meantime, Union Chapel continues to hold services in their fellowship hall, which is housed in a separate building that was not damaged in the fire, where members of the congregation began working soon after the fire to create a makeshift sanctuary as well as Sunday school classroom space in areas that once served as storage.
The fellowship hall is also where Union Chapel hosted its annual community Thanksgiving meal in conjunction with six other area churches the Sunday before the groundbreaking, Neas said.
“We do that every year except last year because of COVID, but it’s nice we were able to do that again,” he said.
He said Thanksgiving Day also brought a significant donation from a community member wanting to help, and that was among many the church has accepted since the fire. Neas said he is thankful for all of those donations which, in combination with money through insurance, will fund the new building.
Volunteer Building Systems, led by Ken Rose, will lead the project.
The church is still accepting donations to cover the full cost of construction and materials. Donations can be sent to the church at 5915 Erwin Highway, Chuckey, TN 37641.