“This truly is an extraordinary achievement.” Pastor Nicola Vitiello, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Girard
Written by Marsha MacKinnon, Web Editor for the Presbytery of Lake Erie
The First Presbyterian Church of Girard has experienced a faith journey like no other over the last three years. Now the Girard congregation and community are ready to celebrate all they’ve been through and all that has been accomplished. The members and leaders of First Girard are holding a dedication ceremony on Sunday, September 12 at 2 p.m. at the newly rebuilt First Presbyterian Church of Girard.
In the early morning hours of July 22, 2018, fire destroyed the church building which had stood since 1892. There was nothing left to salvage except a cross from the sanctuary, a small stained-glass window, two crosses from the roof and the bell.
The Girard church has experienced trials and tribulations before. Rebuilding on faith is part of their history. The first church building was constructed on the corner of East Main and Church streets in 1832, according to First Girard Pastor Nicola Vitiello. Then in 1892, a storm destroyed the original church. Later that year, a groundbreaking was held to reconstruct First Girard. A red-brick church was built, and this second structure stood for 126 years before fire leveled it to the ground in 2018.
“My personal inspiration was forged only hours after the fire,” recalls Girard Elder Chris McNally. “ I was awakened by my wife around 6 a.m. with her letting me know social media was reporting a fire at the church. I immediately got to the building to discover the destruction. After a couple hours on the grounds, another church member said he was walking a couple blocks over to an elderly member, Paul Mangold’s house, to make sure he was aware. It was raining that morning of the fire and we arrived drenched at Paul’s front door. Paul came to the door dressed in his Sunday best having no idea that the church building was gone. Upon being informed he paused a moment processing what he had been told, his first words were ‘That’s terrible news, but we’ll get through this.’ From that moment I knew my purpose for God’s glory.”
Leaders and members gathered at a neighboring church in Lake City just hours after the fire that destroyed their beloved church to pray and find a way forward. While the fire resulted in an overwhelming loss, such a loss also presented a unique opportunity to not only rebuild a church structure but to envision what is truly needed to better serve the needs of its members and the community of Girard.
“Both the fire and the rebuild are still surreal to me,” says Pastor Vitiello. “This was such a unique experience to shepherd a congregation through and it has also been very difficult as I’ve still had to do all the other things pastors regularly do in our ministry.”
At the time of the fire, Elder of First Girard, Dr. Michael Parenti, was struggling with more than the loss of his church. “My mother and a close co-worker passed away within 5 weeks prior to the fire. This was a third huge void in my personal life, but somehow through it all, I knew God was still present. We, as a church family, would be forced to think about our mission & ministry from a different perspective, without a building to worship in,” says Parenti.
At a time when many Christian churches are closing their doors and others are struggling to stay open in our post-Christian world, First Girard kept the faith and focused on its new vision of ‘being church’ in the Girard community and the 21st century.
“I was inspired to go back on Session to help the church redefine its mission and ministry in our community, says Elder Dr. Parenti. “Continuous prayer that somehow, we could rebuild without incurring significant debt. Countless hours of planning meetings with our contractor and building team were necessary. We can’t thank them enough. A lot of grace and compromise was necessary to wade through our 3 year transformation.”
While the challenges were many, the people of First Girard trusted God in the process and created a new mission statement to guide its vision for the new building: ‘Encouraging people to learn, show, and share God’s love through service and support.’
“The challenges were staying in budget and balancing getting congregational input while having a Building Team oversee the project and in consultation with the Session make many of the decisions. There were lots of conversations regarding traditional or modern style,” says Pastor Vitiello.
After a year and a half of discussion, discernment and planning, a groundbreaking ceremony was held November 24, 2019, to build a new church building on the same street corner in Girard, Pennsylvania where a church has stood since 1832. The cost about $3.3 million. Pastor Vitiello says the funds to rebuild came from insurance, donations, fundraisers including brick sales and donations from Erie Gives Day. The rebuild incurred no debt. Remarkable.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, shutting down everything.
“This truly is an extraordinary achievement,” says Pastor Vitiello. “Amidst the pandemic, the rebuilding offered hope to people in our community and beyond. Lots of prayers helped along with many people willing to put in countless hours in meetings.”
While honoring the past with a focus on the future, you can see in the photos how the designers mirrored the structural lines of the fire ravaged church and the new church building. Everything else is state-of-the-art including windows, lighting, electrical and HVAC, acoustics, technology for worship, the kitchen and social hall. Now, with a modern facility, First Girard is better able to serve its neighbors and community.
“The one-level building’s accessibility has already been an asset,” says Pastor Vitiello. “A pre-school, not run by the church, will be starting in our classroom space this fall. The social hall and conference room can be rented for meetings and family gatherings. The food pantry is operating out of the new building, where the handicap accessibility is a big help and people can wait for their food in the social hall instead of in a line outdoors.”
Rebuilding the First Presbyterian Church of Girard took faith, fortitude, and a community of friends.
“The Girard community was also mourning the loss from the fire,” says Elder Dr. Parenti. “After all, our building was on the corner of “Church” Street & Main and a signature property in town. Immediately, we received support from a funeral director who offered us office space in a rental across the street. Neighboring churches offered us use of their spaces for activities and worship. During the pandemic, Girard Borough offered us use of their park pavilion for outdoor worship. Many community members, past church members, friends, and churches from around the country offered their financial support. A few businesses even held little fundraising events to help us rebuild. A former member even volunteered his time to clean several hundred old bricks for us to reuse!
Elder Chris McNally agrees the rebuild would not have been possible without broad community support. “I’ve learned that it takes so many people (both inside and outside our congregation) in varying contributions (monetary, personal time, prayer) to achieve such good. As in Romans 8:28 – And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Since First Girard received so much support, they feel now is the time for them to give back.
“Since the fire, we have learned of a few other churches in the country that have suffered this same loss, including one recently a few counties away,” says Pastor Vitiello. “As a way of passing on the generosity we received, the Session authorized sending some funds to the Mt. Pleasant Church in PA and we have been taking up a love offering for this congregation as well. We are thankful for all the support people gave to us in this journey.”
The community is invited to attend a Dedication Service for the newly rebuilt First Presbyterian Church of Girard at 260 Main Street East, Girard, Pennsylvania on Sunday, September 12, 2021, at 2:00 p.m. Reception to follow in the Fellowship Hall.
All Photos: Courtesy of Elder Dr. Michael Parenti & Elder Chris McNally