Rebuilding on Faith…
Written by Marsha MacKinnon, Webmaster for the Presbytery of Lake Erie
The First Presbyterian Church of Girard sustained a catastrophic loss in the summer of 2018. The church building, built in 1892, was consumed by fire. Despite this devastating loss, there is something very positive growing from the ashes of this historic church in Western Erie County. While strong faith has been evident here for well over a century, The Rev. Nicola Vitiello, Pastor of the Girard church, believes that faith is now stronger, deeper and richer than before. “I would say that from the perspective of the congregation there has been a coming together, a new togetherness,” said Vitiello. “Attendance in worship is up, participation in fellowship is up and involvement in Sunday School(Faith Formation) all are up. Members have become more active.”
Sometime in the early morning hours of July 22, 2018 fire erupted at the First Presbyterian Church of Girard. Thirteen fire companies, from Girard and Lake city and others throughout the western region of Erie County responded to the fire scene and every effort was made to save the structure. It just wasn’t possible. The members of the Girard congregation were shocked that their beloved church building was no longer standing where it had stood for 126 years. While the main church building was a total loss, the volunteer fire firefighters were able to save an adjacent building that houses the community food pantry. The food pantry continues to serve those in need in the Girard community. The exact cause of the fire will not likely be determined due to the intensity of the fire.
Shock, loss and grief, came together during a prayer service that was held on July 24, 2018 in the church parking lot. In attendance, church members, neighbors, local clergy, the Rev. Dr. David Oyler, Head Presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Erie and the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is well known for supplying volunteers to support people after natural disasters. This time representatives would help the Girard church through their grief and recovery and look to the future.
Rev. Dr. David Oyler felt deeply about the loss to the Girard church. While the church building is no longer standing, the church is actually the people of the congregation. “As General Presbyter, I had two immediate responses when I heard this most difficult news early on the morning of July 22. My first response, ‘Oh, what a difficult, heart breaking tragedy.’ My second response: ‘The people of the Girard congregation are wonderfully resilient people. And they shall prevail.’ When I first drove by the devastated church building I was overwhelmed by empathy, yet knowing that God alone is Lord of the church,” said Oyler.
Lake City Presbyterian Church is demonstrating faith-in-action, where neighbors are helping neighbors, by opening its doors to the Girard congregation. On Sundays, Lake City has worship at 9 a.m. and Girard has worship at 11:00 a.m. and Sunday School is at 9:30 a.m. Thanks to donations of office supplies, the Girard congregation has a new temporary office located across the street from their former church building on Main and Church streets in Girard.
According to Pastor Vitiello, the Session of the Girard church has hired a contractor to demolish, design and build a new church building at the same location. “The congregation has had one listening session, and more to follow so people can be heard and the Elders will be informed about what the congregation wants,” said Vitiello. About two-thirds of the cost to rebuild the Girard church will be covered by the insurance policy. To raise funding for the remaining third of the cost, the congregation has created a restoration fund so contributions can be made to complete the project. Demolition of the site is expected to be completed before winter, so that construction by the contractor, Building Systems, Inc.(BSI) can begin in April/May 2019.
While the grief process continues and plans continue to develop for the future, Pastor Vitiello is happy and impressed with the amount of progress already made to rebuild a new church. “One of the challenges for me is to try to pastor in a way that I’m used to pastoring, and at the same time try to help in the effort to build of a new church.”
While the grief process continues, the members of Girard Presbyterian are rebuilding on faith. “There are many, many steps to take in this renewing process. Yes, there are physical and logistical items to address – removal of debris, insurance settlements, temporary worship location, office space and a host of other issues. Even more this is a time of spiritual reflection and renewal for a congregation,” said Oyler. “The church has been surrounded by the prayers of countless congregations and individual Christians. There has been an outpouring of supplies and generous financial gifts from churches across Lake Erie Presbytery and beyond. God has a continuing faithful ministry developing in the midst of the Girard Presbyterians. They have a message to share of Jesus Christ, but also one of hope in the face of adversity, resilience, and perseverance in the midst of physical loss. Faith formation continues on…thanks be to God!”
The Girard congregation is offering its thanks and gratitude to all the firefighters who responded to the fire. Church members are providing two dinners for those firefighters to thank them; on November 1 in Girard and November 5 in Lake City. The Girard congregation is rebuilding on faith. To help them complete the rebuilding donations can be made to: First Presbyterian Church of Girard, PO Box 106, Girard, PA 16417.