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KANSAS: St. David's, Topeka, begins recovery after arson fire

By Melodie Woerman

An arson fire damaged St. David's, Topeka, Kansas, in the early morning of November 10.  

Fire damage on the wall between the chapel (to the right) and nave of St. David's, Topeka, the morning after an arson fire damaged the church.  

[Episcopal News Service]  The parishioners of St. David's Episcopal Church, Topeka, Kansas, are beginning to cope with news that a fire that caused extensive damage to the nave and chapel early on November 10 had been intentionally set.

Just 24 hours after the fire was extinguished parishioners had begun the process of counting the losses and cleaning up the mess, and worshipping together. And while sad to lose their worship space, senior warden Margaret Telthorst said congregants mostly were anxious to move forward.

An announcement the afternoon of November 10 by fire officials saying that the blaze was caused by arson gave members only momentary pause, Telthorst said.

"It was unexpected news and hard to hear," she said, "but within an hour it didn't matter. People said, 'This happened, we are going to deal with it, we are going to move on. Just tell us what we need to do.'"

Damage inside the church property was extensive. The interior of the nave, including the pews, weren't harmed by flame but were affected by heavy smoke and debris from the firefighting efforts. The wall between the chapel and nave was heavily charred by fire. The church's one-of-a-kind tracker organ, located in the choir loft in the back of the church and valued in excess of $250,000, is a total loss.

Fire officials have estimated the damage at $2.5 to $3 million. The Rev. Don Davidson, St. David's rector, said he believes the entire loss will be covered by insurance.

Several churches offered space for Sunday services. The community worshipped at 1:30 p.m. November 12 at Faith Lutheran Church, across the street from St. David's. Davidson said he wanted this service to be in the neighborhood, so people could be near their church. Grace Cathedral, Topeka, provided altar linens and vestments, and Faith Lutheran offered other items needed for the liturgy.

This marks the second time Faith Lutheran Church has provided St. David's with a home. Episcopalians met there for several months in 1952 before the present parish hall, which served as the congregation's first church, was built.

About 350 people crowded into Faith Lutheran Church to hear Davidson and Kansas Bishop Dean Wolfe tell them that the congregation will rebuild and will be stronger for the trials they will endure.

"If we build it, they will come," Davidson said in his sermon, quoting from the movie "Field of Dreams."

He asked people to look at their hands, saying: "These hands of ours have been about the business these past few days of saying goodbye to a precious part of our parish, but not our church. We have been wiping our tears and grieving and remembering what has happened there."

He called the congregation to continue to spread the message of the gospel while they rebuild. "Baptisms, weddings, funerals, everything else you can imagine we're going to continue right on doing," he said. "They don't need a building, they need our hands.

Davidson had special words of comfort for St. David's youngest members. After calling the children forward for their own sermon, he sat with them on the floor and showed them a vial of oil he carries for anointing the sick.

"Our church is hurt, our building is hurt, but it will be healed," he told them. "I think God is giving us a little bit of oil, a little bit of healing. He says, 'I am with you, I will be with you. I will help you. I will not be absent. I love you.'"

Wolfe assured parishioners of support from the other congregations within the Diocese of Kansas.

"We are not independent congregations in the Episcopal Church," he said. "We are linked one with the other. Sometimes that is a real pain, and sometimes that is the very thing that saves us."

The parish's tenacity in gathering for worship so soon after its fire drew the bishop's special praise. "No fire, no loss of your building, nothing will separate us from the love of God," he said. "We are here to proclaim the Gospel. We are not missing a single Sunday. Anyone who wants to stop this ministry has run into the wrong group of folks."

Heavy smoke hampered firefighting

Early reports indicate that the fire started in the chapel and traveled up a wall into the ceiling, where it ran the length of the building. When firefighters arrived they had difficulty attacking the fire because of heavy smoke. They cuts holes in the nave roof to help release the smoke, and at one point those efforts caused small flames to appear through holes. Firefighters doused the blaze inside the church with water and foam.

At one point 14 fire trucks were involved in the response, and four firefighters from a neighboring town were called in to assist. Topeka Fire Chief Greg Bailey said about 80 firefighters helped fight the fire.

Fire investigators included the state fire marshal's office; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. ATF involvement is automatic with a church fire, an agent reported.

The fire was reported at 5:20 a.m., and within an hour more than a dozen members of the parish, along with Davidson and Deacon Harry Craig, had gathered across the street to watch the scene. Capital City Bank opened its vestibule to provide protection from the cold and later invited clergy, parishioners and fire officials inside for coffee and to use the phone and meeting rooms.

By 7:30 a.m. Wolfe had arrived to provide help and spiritual support. He and Canon to the Ordinary Mary Siegmund comforted parishioners and conferred with fire officials. The bishop led those gathered in a time of prayer and offered words of reassurance to them.

"This is our house, but it is not our home. It is our building, but we are the church," he said, pointing across the street to the smoking structure. Wolfe encouraged people to "lean on each other and on God" in the coming weeks and said, "We are going to be different, and by God's grace we are going to be better."

The parish was started in 1952, and the church building was completed in the early 1960s. It has 610 members with an average Sunday attendance of 230, making it the sixth largest parish in the diocese.