POMARIA, SC — On a windswept hill in Newberry County Sunday morning, under an open sky, more than 600 men, women and children sang timeless hymns like “A Mighty Fortress” and recited age-old verses from Isaiah that say “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned.”
“A church is the people; a church is not a building,” the Rev. Brent Nichols told the crowd, many sitting on folding chairs they had brought or been lent by local funeral homes.
It was the first service since a fire of unknown origin erupted in St. Paul Lutheran Church shortly before dawn Thursday, destroying the sanctuary and an adjoining parish. Authorities may announce a likely cause this week.
At one point in his talk, Nichols asked, “If you are not a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, I would like you to stand.”
Behind Nichols, 58, the now-charred church’s gray granite walls still reached to the sky as they had for 75 years. But its high slate-like roof was now a jagged maw open to the sky. Inside, the church was filled with lumps of rubble from pews, hymnals and the electric organ. The 70-foot-high steeple and its cross were just piles of debris on the ground.
And the church’s pride — more than a dozen large stained lead glass windows remarkable for their beauty and imported years ago from Germany — were now melted into dark leaden gobs.
“So many people were saying, ‘I hope we save the steeple,’ ” Nichols said as he opened a service that would run two hours. But both the steeple and its cross came tumbling down, he said.
Other cherished things were lost in the fire, including most if not all the choir’s some two dozen white robes, an upright Yamaha piano and two electric keyboards. Some were irreplaceable, like more than 50 years’ worth of published sheet music in three filing cabinets, said Hannah Aurand, church organist.
Sunday’s visitors were from other Lutheran churches in the Midlands, or were like Susan Wilson, a member of Columbia’s Trenholm Road United Methodist Church and Nichols’ brother-in-law, who had made the trek.
“I just came to show support,” said Wilson, who wound up staying well into the afternoon.
On hand also were Lutheran Bishop emeritus David Donges and the current bishop of the S.C. Synod, Herman Yoos, who gave the day’s main sermon and who represented 57,000 S.C. members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America at 153 congregations.
“Make no mistake — out of these ashes behind us, God will raise up a new St. Paul’s that will be alive with his spirit,” Yoos said.
Quoting the Book of Lamentations, Yoos urged members to share their stories of grief at the loss of their beloved sanctuary, where so many baptisms, weddings and funerals had taken place.
Yoos urged members to share stories of God at work in the midst of calamity.
One Synod official who is an architect went to the fire scene immediately and called a structural engineer. They believe the church’s walls can be saved.
Yoos said he’d heard about a local sixth-grade girl, not a church member, who had said she would give her savings — $100 — to help rebuild the church.
“Isn’t it most unusual for a 12-year-old to say, ‘I don’t want a Nintendo set or another Wii game, or an Xbox, but I want what I’ve got to go for rebuilding,’ ” Yoos said.
Gifts and support were coming in other forms, too. Sims Music of Columbia had lent the church an electric keyboard and portable sound system so Aurand could play hymns Sunday morning. Newberry Electric Cooperative had jury-rigged an electrical connection for the sound system.
Sheriff Lee Foster had several deputies on hand for traffic for the entire service. Foster, who had grown up a Lutheran and is now a Methodist, was there the whole time in uniform, taking communion and singing hymns like “Built on a rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling . . . ”
Blinking back tears in his talk, Nichols told two stories.
A 4-year-old girl had let it be known she would give all her savings — $41.05 — to help rebuild the church, he said.
And Paul Werts, a church member and neighbor who drove past the church every day, told Nichols he “couldn’t stand driving round the curve” and not seeing the cross high on the church steeple. So he brought Nichols a 20-foot cedar cross, which stood in front of the church Sunday, just outside the yellow law enforcement tape warning people to keep out.
“The cross is a symbol of victory,” Nichols said. “Jesus died on the cross — they thought!”
Although Nichols — pastor for 22 years and who lives less than 50 yards from the church — stressed the church was just a building, he made it clear that the structure was close to his heart.
“It’s more than a building,” he told Sunday’s worshippers. Since the fire, he has “walked around in a daze. Honestly, I’m at a loss.”
To him, the building was holy, he said, the word “holy meaning something set apart for God. . . . There is something holy about this place. There is a sense of sacredness about the lives of the people in this church.”
The congregation dates back to 1761. Generations of families have worshipped there and their ancestors are buried in an adjoining cemetery.
Having lived next to the church for 22 years, Nichols said his children (now students at Clemson) grew up here. “This is an extension of our house, almost, not just on Sunday morning but all through the week.”
At the end of the service, church member Wayne Boozer rang the church’s bell. During the fire, it had fallen out of the burning steeple to the front side of the church.
“The bell was hot, but it wasn’t hurt — isn’t that amazing?” said church historian Debbie Werts, 55, who recalled how the church’s first sanctuary, a log cabin, had gone up in flames, in 1785 or so.
The church bell is believed to date back to the early 1800s, she said. “It was kind of meant for us to keep it.”
Contributions may be mailed to the St. Paul Restoration Fund, First Community Bank, P.O. Box 417, Newberry SC 29108