Historic Houston Church Survives Fire

Date Posted: 10/10/2019

Photo by: Rev. Jon Eichler 
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
St. Mark’s UMC in Houston survived a fire on Friday, Sept. 20. After the flames were extinguished, the community rallied around the church in efforts to preserve the historic structure. The restoration work continues, and members have found a temporary worship space in nearby schools.
Senior Pastor Rev. Emily Chapman arrived on the scene of the fire before anyone else. “I beat the fire department there by three minutes,” she recalled. “It was horrible to watch, because there’s really nothing you can do. All you can do is just stand there.”
Then the fire trucks arrived. “They worked quickly and saved the building honestly,” Chapman said. “We are really grateful to them.”

At one point, about 100 heroes were working to contain the blaze, she said. The fire started in the youth area and traveled into the attic. The ceiling collapsed on the second floor. The sanctuary, on the other side of the building, filled with smoke.
While the fire did not spread throughout the church, the damage from the smoke and the water from the fire hoses was extensive. The building was saved, but the need for a restoration was immediate.

As soon as the fire was put out, Chapman led firefighters and church members who had gathered at the scene in prayer.
“I hadn’t known what to do for the past couple of hours, but at that point, I knew we needed to thank God that it was over and that no one was hurt,” Chapman said. “It felt like the natural thing to do.”

Then, a lay leader called a company that works on fire restoration. “They were on the scene within an hour,” Chapman said. “And we’ve been working with them ever since.”

Photo by: Rev. Emily Chapman

She compared the soot inside the sanctuary to paint – and explained that it covered the interior in a thick layer. “Smoke does remarkable damage,” she said.
All fabric was pulled out of the space. Scaffolding was built to help clean the wooded ceilings.
The restoration company has been working in 24-hour shifts to help the church return to its worship space, Chapman added. “They know how important it us to get back into the sanctuary,” she said.
In the meantime, the church found nearby places to host its Sunday sermons. Members headed to the cafeteria of Martinez Elementary on Sept. 22 and then moved to Hogg Middle School the following weekend. Chapman said that in another couple of months, the church will be able to return to its sanctuary, with temporary walls to safeguard the rest of the building.
St. Mark’s was able to re-open its day school on Sept. 25. The children’s building sustained no additional damage. Some offices will also move into that space.
Chapman said that the teen space was damaged most and will probably be the last to be restored. In the meantime, youth programs have been hosted by other churches or even church members’ homes.
St. Mark’s is focusing its thoughts on progress – the flow of work trucks, supplies and people who are bringing the church back to life.

Photo by: Rev. Hannah Terry

Chapman explained that the recovery process takes time. “It’s definitely not something I wanted to learn, but I learn every day,” she said. “We’re really sad that this happened to our historic building. It’s held a lot of people’s memories for a long time.”
St. Mark’s traces its origins to 1875. Chapman said some of the pieces from the heritage room are also being restored.

Photo by: Rev. Hannah Terry
The cause of the fire is still unknown. The focus is instead on recovery.
“We’ve all been so buoyed by the love of our community,” Chapman said. “People want to help in ways that aren’t even available.”

For example, when she posted that the church needed two canopies to provide shade while people worked, they appeared right away.

Photo by: Wes Landry

“We’ve had such support from our neighborhood and community, and that’s a blessing for us,” Chapman said.
Chapman said support to the church can also be made by showing gratitude to local firefighters.
“We certainly also appreciate being in people’s prayers and ask that they keep them coming,” Chapman said. “It’s going to be a long road ahead of us.”

Photo by: Rev. Hannah Terry

Donations to support the church may be made online at smumc.org/give or the temporary mailing address P.O. Box 30419 Houston TX 77249. Updates on the recovery process can be found at smumc.org/restoration.