‘It really brought us together’

The Shenandoah Valley-Herald
STRASBURG — The front of Strasburg Presbyterian Church conjures up a crime scene, as evidenced by a long yellow ribbon and a black, red and white' No Trespassing' poster.
Inside, it only gets worse. Charcoal stains on floors and walls serve as reminders of a summer evening that abruptly got hot: an electrical fire that flashed in the kitchenette of the church and, though doused before burning much, darkened the structure and, for months, its residents' morale.
The blaze that turned Strasburg Presbyterian from an unspoiled, if outmoded, historical landmark into a scarred facsimile of its former self altered more than the facility's looks. The catastrophe also changed members of the church in a way that its pastor, David D. Howard, now calls a well-cloaked blessing.
“The fire was a downer — it took a little while for us to get our feet back on the ground, and it took a couple of months for the enormity of this to really hit our people,” he said. “But it really brought us together as a congregation.”
Five months later, monetary damage to the church remains hazy — at best guess, “hundreds of thousands of dollars,”says Davis: the church, fortunately, carried insurance. But even such prudence can't resurrect the site at a pace its faithful would like. Neither Howard, nor other leaders of the 90-plus congregation expect to return to their home at 325 South Holliday Street anytime soon. The most upbeat see a resettlement sometime late next year.
However, in what might seem to an act of spiritual defiance, Strasburg Presbyterian hopes to hold services on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's, in a sanctuary that, even with pews replaced, remains a work in progress.
Workers recently replaced 33 windows that firefighters smashed to let smoke escape, and the area still lacks permanent restrooms. The chapel's largely brick interior played no small part in its survival.
Comparatively, the sanctuary escaped extreme destruction. An adjacent two-story Christian education wing fared worse, placing the future of the latter in limbo.
Beyond reconstruction, the hardest work for the recovering church involved forging unity for tasks that lie ahead.
“Our biggest challenge was just getting a consensus from the group, and defending our vision [for the future] to everyone else,” said Virgil Sturgeon, an elder at the church who chairs Strasburg Presbyterian's buildings and grounds committee.
When restoration is finished, the church will boast more thermal comfort. In fact, a project to replace the building's radiator heating system was underway when the fire struck. Strasburg Presbyterian, built in 1830 and later used as a Civil War hospital, hadn't modernized much since 1927.
Along with its members' resolve, Strasburg Presbyterian owes much of its optimism to others: specifically, broad support that ranges from outside folk to fellow churches. Both sources have donated proceeds from fundraisers while town craftsmen Bryan Bauserman and John Orndorff restored furniture and neighbor Mary Ann Littrell offered storage space in her home for church items.
A town couple, David and Sherand Smith, gave perhaps the most urgent gift, space, by allowing Strasburg Presbyterian use of a community center at the town's East Queen Street Square shopping center. A Presbyterian church in Woodstock provided tents and chairs.
The assistance given his church still floors Howard.
“The support we've over the last five months has been tremendous,” he said. “We're all grateful for that love and support — we wouldn't be where we are today without it.”
Another elder, Hope Brim, marvels at the scope of charity extended her church.
“A lot of people have gone out of their way,” she said.

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