Sam Chamelin, pastor of the Lazarus United Church of Christ in Lineboro, lives just down the two-lane road from the historic church that anchors this rural community. On Tuesday, he could see the structure glowing in the morning light.
"Sam, the church is on fire," a parishioner had phoned to tell him.
Chamelin jumped in his car with a "sick feeling" and headed to the church, as many of its 175 parishioners would that day. The church, which traces its history to 1853 and expanded to its existing building in 1908, before sprinklers were required, was destroyed in the blaze.
Chamelin said he watched the fire, emotionless, before breaking down.
"I wanted to punch a hole in the wall, but they were all gone," he said.
The church has been shared by the Lazarus United Church of Christ and Lazarus Lutheran Church, and parishioners said it stood as a symbol of faith and unity in this northern Carroll County community. Impromptu groups gathered to pray, give hugs and lend support near the charred shell of a church during the day.
"The two congregations here have worshiped together, alternating worship times and building a history together," Chamelin said. "It's really two families, which act as one family, that are all mourning today. It's really hard for all of us."
About 200 members of the community attended a vigil Tuesday evening at the Lineboro Volunteer Fire Department, about a half-mile away from the church. It seemed that everyone hugged Chamelin at some point during the night, offering words of encouragement and support.
"Everybody says these things are heart-wrenching," the pastor said. "They really are. There's a lot of tears, a lot of pain, but a lot of strength. We'll rebuild."
Fire officials declared the structure a total loss and estimated damage at $1 million. No one was injured. The cause of the blaze remained under investigation late Tuesday.
Bruce Bouche, a senior deputy state fire marshal, said the first 911 call came at 4:11 a.m., and crews responded from stations in Carroll and Baltimore counties as well as from York County, Pa. The fire was under control by about 6 a.m.
"Churches can be rebuilt," Bouche said. "When this one is rebuilt, at least it'll have sprinklers."
Joan Waugh, president of the church council, whose husband gets up early for work, lives on a hill just south of the church. "We noticed there was an orange glow in the window and when we looked outside we saw it," she said.
She called 911, then the pastor.
Waugh's husband, Steve, said he first believed the glow was a dream, "surely not the church on fire." Then he ran straight to the church.
"It was horrifying," he said of seeing the church ablaze. "It's so still in the morning, to hear it burning was very unnerving."
Later in the morning, Joan Waugh stood along the church road holding pages from the past — part of a book, charred on all sides, that had been salvaged from the building. The pages listed marriages in the 1850s and other notable records.
The congregation itself dates to 1853, and was founded by members of Zion's Church in Manchester. According to a 1993 article in The Baltimore Sun, poor roads had made the five-mile route from Lineboro to Manchester impassable for several months each year, so the faithful decided to build their own church.
According to a 1939 Sun article, the original sanctuary was built through donation pledges from members — the largest recorded was $120 and the smallest "121/2 cents."
The current Gothic Revival edifice was built in 1908 at a cost of $15,159.78, according to church officials. Another Sun article published that year described it as "an ornament to the village and the surrounding country. ... Great pride is felt in it by the immediate members."
Though in a remote part of Carroll County, the church is a hub of local activity. The Lazarus UCC website reflects a focus on events leading toward the Christmas season — poinsettia sales, a "hanging of the greens" service planned for Dec. 13, plans for a live Nativity and notes about a 5k run that had been scheduled for this Sunday to collect canned goods for the church food pantry and money for outreach programs. The 5k has been canceled, church officials said.
Janice Lankford, a former resident, now lives just outside of Reisterstown but continues to worship at Lazarus — as she has since the 1960s. She said the congregation truly is a family.
"This is home," she said of the church. "It's a piece of you, a part of your soul."
Chamelin said that no decisions have been made on where upcoming services will be held, but that every church within a 15-mile radius had offered to let the Lazarus congregation use their buildings.
"That's an indication of the community around here," he said. "We have a congregation that loves one another and loves God. We'll see where we're worshiping this Sunday. We're definitely worshiping Sunday."
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell and editor Jim Joyner contributed to this article.