“Right now, we’re thinking lightning,” Winder Fire Chief Matt Whiting said as he and other firefighters stood by while embers of the century-old structure for the Sanctuary of the Holy Spirit still smoldered Friday morning.
Fire investigators were slated to take a closer look at the building after its brick walls — virtually all that remained of the church — were knocked down to prevent the danger of unexpected collapsing.
Whiting could not say Friday morning how long it might take to determine an official cause of the blaze.
The fire at the West Candler Street church, reported about 11 p.m. Thursday, was “definitely one of the largest fires in the history of Winder,” Whiting said.
The church sits in the edge of a residential area, and homes around it were evacuated as firefighters fought to save the structure. Flames already were visible as firefighters arrived at the church, and while there was an effort to fight the blaze from inside the building, the rapid progress of the fire made that interior attack unsafe early in the firefighting effort and it was abandoned, Whiting said.
Members of the 70-person congregation stood across the street from the church for portions of the night and into Friday morning. Late Friday morning, church member Eileen Graybill sat on the curb with her grandson as smoke continued to curl from the remains of the church.
“I was clutching my heart,” Graybill said of seeing the burned-out church. But, she added, “The pastor’s still here.”
Pastor Phillip Adair and his wife, Linda, mortgaged their home to get the building in 2005, and spent two years restoring the structure. It had been condemned prior to their purchase.
The building was sold to them by its previous owner on the strength of their promise that it would be used as a church, Linda Adair said.
Renovations had been ongoing at the church, and the Thursday blaze claimed a new sound system and two new 55-inch video screens, Phillip Adair said. The building was insured, according to the pastor.
“It’s devastating, standing here and watching,” Phillip Adair said Friday.
Many church members cried as they watched the church burn, he said.
Looking back, the pastor’s wife called the restoration of the church “miraculous.”
“It took us hours just to clean it out,” she recalled.
Once work got started, she remembered, “People would just come in and build a wall.”
At one point, she said, her husband sold a prized possession — a 1938 Chevrolet — to purchase a chandelier for the church.
“Watching it burn was so violent,” Linda Adair said Friday morning as she stood across the street from the building. “It’s an emotional roller-coaster.”
Immediate plans for Sunday services were unclear, but Phillip Adair said Friday that a number of area churches had offered their facilities to his congregation. Church members had planned a pool party at the associate pastor’s home for Friday night. That event was scheduled to proceed, although it likely would become more of a church meeting than a party, the pastor said.
Any possible plans for rebuilding the church were less than clear Friday, but Phillip Adair did say he was skeptical as to whether Winder city officials would allow the church to be rebuilt at the West Candler Street site.
In its 108-year history, the building served as a Methodist Episcopal church, was used by the Church of God and, for a time before its use by the Sanctuary of the Holy Spirit, was a restaurant.