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story.lead_photo.caption The sanctuary of Little Rock’s Westminster Presbyterian Church was the site of the congregation’s weddings, baptisms, memorial services and worship services since 1972, but the congregation dates to 1899. The cause of the fire July 19 that left the church in ruins is still unknown.

The Rev. David Dyer of Westminster Presbyterian Church handed out brand-new hymnals to his congregation July 15.

Take them home with you, he told the fewer than a dozen members gathered that Sunday. Become familiar with them and see what you think, he said.

After a fire completely destroyed the Little Rock church four days later, the only things left from the congregation's worship home were the new hymnals.

"It shocked us to death," 81-year-old Johnnie Nell Thomas said.

Her husband, Danny Thomas, 83, is a lifelong member of the church, and she joined Westminster after they married nearly 58 years ago.

"We still can't believe it," she said. "We're just heartbroken, because it's not right to not go to church."

The church has stood at the end of John Calvin Drive since 1972 and has a history dating back almost 120 years, when the church took its first roll at its original location in Sweet Home, in August 1899. More recently, the church has been comprised of mostly older adults who have attended the church for decades.

"We've gotten to be a small church," said Brenda Donaldson of Little Rock. "On a good day we may have 10 people."

Leslie Belden, temporary state clerk for the Presbytery of Arkansas, said among the items lost in the fire were a Bible that had been given to Dyer when he was 7 years old. A ledger with meticulously recorded dates of births, deaths, weddings and burials of church members also was lost, along with the sign from the Sweet Home church, which had been on display in Westminster's dining hall.

Brenda Donaldson's husband, Jerry Donaldson, managed to remove the bell, which had hung in the bell tower of their church in Sweet Home and had fallen to the ground during the fire.

"While [material things] can't be replaced, in many respects they're inconsequential compared to the fact that everyone is safe," Belden said.

No church members were present at the time of the fire, Belden said, and Dyer, the church's pastor, was in Philadelphia on July 19.

"That sweet congregation, they pleaded with their pastor to not come home from his vacation," Belden said. "It was the first day he had taken off in years."

Belden noted that several churches reached out to Westminster the day after the fire to offer help and re-emphasize the Presbyterian faith's sense of community in the wake of the tragedy.

"Our Presbyterian denomination considers each congregation independent but linked together, so we are brother and sister congregations," Belden said. "It's not just the loss of one church. It's a loss for all of us."

Donaldson said she received a call around 7:30 p.m. July 19 from the church's security company, informing her that an alarm had been triggered at the church.

"My husband [Jerry Donaldson] and I came straight here and it was already engulfed in flames," Donaldson said.

The two of them watched as the fire consumed the A-frame church structure.

She returned to the site Monday to look at the remnants of the church she began attending at 15, where she was married at 19, and married again in 1985.

Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette
The Rev. Donn Walters, who was pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church from 1991 until his death in 2012, baptizes Macey Hogue in June of 2010
Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette
A display of Christmas village figures arranged below a tapestry depicts the church’s original building in Sweet Home
Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette
Children gather around Walters during Easter weekend, circa 2008
Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette
The church's exterior, which stood from the time construction was completed on the building in 1972 until it was destroyed by a fire on June 19.
Photo by Francisca Jones
This wooden cross, which was on the grounds of Westminster Presbyterian Church, remained untouched while flames consumed the structure July 19.
Photo by Francisca Jones
A hymnal page lies among the remnants of the July 19 fire that swept through Westminster Presbyterian Church in Little Rock

Now 62, Donaldson looked past the sunlit remnants of charred wood and blackened hymnal pages and pointed to where louvered doors once opened into the sanctuary.

"That aisle, I walked down it twice," Donaldson said. "Once when I was young and stupid, and again when I was older and wiser."

Both of her daughters were baptized at Westminster, and it was where her youngest son married in 2001 and where the memorial services of both her in-laws were held. Donaldson organized many of the church's events such as its monthly potlucks -- things she said she always wanted to do when she was a little girl.

One item -- a wooden cross that stands several feet high that was on the property but a short distance from the church -- was spared.

"It's very sad," Donaldson said of the fire.

Laurie Kraus, coordinator for the Kentucky-based disaster relief organization Presbyterian Disaster Alliance, said the first thing a congregation should do after a disaster is gather together.

"They need to be able to be with each other because of the shock and the grief that follows pretty quickly in [a disaster's] wake," Kraus said. "This is something that needs to be experienced in community."

Next, Kraus said, is making immediate plans for the church's future, such as where they would meet.

That place is tentatively set to be the community room of the Arch Street Fire Department in Little Rock. It was among six fire departments -- including departments in Saline and Grant counties -- that responded to and put out the blaze.

Donaldson said Harvey Durham, Arch Street's fire chief, extended the offer, and the church is going forward with plans since Dyer returned Wednesday.

"They can always build a new building and everything, but they lost records," Durham said. "The baptisms, the weddings they had, those things you can't replace.

"It's the least we could do."

Durham also noted that the investigation had not been completed as of Wednesday and a reason for the fire had not been ascertained.

Belden said the congregation will have almost immediate access to a $5,000 disaster grant applied for through the Presbytery of Arkansas. The Presbyterian Disaster Alliance also will help with short- and long-term needs of the church, including pastoral care through a member of the alliance who resides in Arkansas.

Kraus said the fire will have dealt a particularly painful blow for parishioners who have attended the church for decades.

"It's a lot of history and a lot of vulnerability, when you think about what older people hold onto ... they're looking back, and they're holding on to their heritage and their memories," Kraus said. "A fire of this nature certainly is a sort of confrontation of that."

"It was just a wonderful church," Johnnie Nell Thomas said. "We helped the church, and the church helped us. We're going to miss it a lot."

Religion on 07/28/2018

Print Headline: 'A loss for all of us'; When Westminster Presbyterian Church burned July 19, generations of memories went up in smoke

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