Tornado blows church into new era

Linda Hicks Originally Published October 7, 2013 at 11:10 a.m.
Updated October 7, 2013 at 11:10 a.m.
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Linda Hicks

The Vilonia Church of the Nazarene was demolished last week. The 70-year-old church was damaged in a 2011 tornado and had termite damage, making it unusable. The congregation will build another facility on the site, utilizing two crosses and an old bell from the original building.

VILONIA — Parishioners of the Vilonia Church of the Nazarene stood on the side of U.S. 64 last week and watched as the walls of their 70-year-old church tumbled down.

“It’s bittersweet, but we are just at the end of one chapter and at the beginning of a new one,” said Bonita Smith, wife of the church’s pastor, James Smith.

She pointed to a spot nearby where a new worship center will be built. The congregation, she said, has been holding services in the church’s family center since the old church was hit by a tornado in April 2011.

In the aftermath, it was discovered that the church not only had tornado damage but also had severe termite damage and was beyond repair. It took about two years for the matter to be resolved with the insurance company and the termite company, Bonita said. The details weren’t fully disclosed regarding the matter, but the church, she said, had contracted with the same termite company for about 45 years.

“It took us two years to go through the mediation phase, but we settled, finally, out of court, and we came out with enough to build another place,” she said.

Wiping tears from her eyes, Bonita took photos while her husband videotaped as two excavators tore down the church’s walls and pushed back the debris.

James Smith said he is one of 20 or so who has served as pastor of the Vilonia Church of the Nazarene since its construction in 1942 or ’43. Others include Oscar Stallings, W.A. Menneke, M.J. Freeman, P.A. Lewis, Fred L. Johnson, William T. Barnett, J.B. Thomas, Morgan Carroll, Elton Hughes, John C. Turner, J.T. White, Dempsey George, George Petry, Henry Stroman, Loyd Simpson, Danny Hall, J. Ray Hollis, Ronnie Allen and Jim Brown. Records reflect that some have served as pastor more than once, he said.

The Smiths have served at the church for 22 years, since September 1992. For part of that time, Bonita operated a day care in the basement of the church. Watching as that area was bulldozed, she said, she was flooded with memories of children eating, napping and playing.

Tears also rolled down the cheeks of Carol Guilliams, the Smiths’ daughter, as she talked about growing up in the church and being baptized and married there.

“I spent more time in that church than anywhere else,” she said. “We are like one big family. We have watched each other grow up or grow old, and we did it right there.”

She joked about having at least 10 sets of adopted grandparents, as well as her biological ones, “suffering through my awful singing.” After she married, Guilliams said, she and her husband moved to El Dorado for two years. During that time, she said, they still only missed services once in the old church.

“We drove back and forth every week,” she said.

Several months prior to the demolition, members of the congregation removed salvageable items from the church, including some of the old windows, which were given to church members, and a few of the old pews. Other items were donated to another church. An old bell, which had been rung every Sunday morning and could be heard far beyond the walls of the church, and two crosses in the entryway were kept, Bonita said. She said the new center will be a modern one-story building, but the church plans to incorporate the old bell and the two crosses.

Damaged beyond saving was the piano, organ and sound system. On a lighter note, she said that during the church’s gutting, members found a few items they didn’t want to keep.

“We found some beer cans in the walls,” she said. “I guess they were left by whoever built it.”

As the demolition continued for a couple of hours, more and more people began to gather. Some people shared memories of attending revivals, children’s crusades, weddings, funerals and the day care there. Others talked about their family members moving to Vilonia to be a part of the church in the early 1900s and to attend Arkansas Holiness College, which once stood on the same property.

Church members Phyllis Martin Petry and her brother, Dennis Martin, were there to observe the demolition. Their parents, Ralph and Faye Martin, lived in a house across the street until their deaths. The sister and brother reminisced and shared one of their dad’s sayings.

“He always said he only had one job, one wife, one home and one church,” Petry said. “That’s the church.”

Their mother was the treasurer and a Sunday School teacher there for more than 50 years. Now, Dennis is the treasurer.

“This church has always been a part of our life,” Petry said. “We were here every time the doors were open.”

Etta Noblitt has attended services at the church since 1961. All except one of her eight children, she said, were married there.

Originally from Oklahoma, Holly Woidke was taking photographs. She lives with the Smith family on adjacent property and attends the church. A friend of their daughter Selena, Woidke moved to Arkansas to attend college.

“This is where I met my Arkansas family,” she said. “When I would get homesick, I couldn’t always go home, but I could come here.”

Mary Gipson and her husband, Glenn, were the last couple married in the church, on Oct. 10, 2010.

“This is the only home church I have ever had,” she said. “I didn’t grow up in a church. I will never forget this old church, but you can’t store up your treasures. They can be destroyed in the blink of an eye.”

All who attended the demolition shared their sadness at the loss, but they also shared their excitement to move forward.

As a lasting tribute, Bonita said, she hopes the Vilonia Church of the Nazarene’s “new chapter” will include many more families being part of services in the new worship center, to be completed in the near future.

With the downing of the old church, Gipson said, there is a feeling that “we are free, and we can move on.”

“My mom said it best. She said it is like watching a terminally ill patient pass away.

The way I see it, we are finally free to move on. This is a victory.”

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