Adapting the Easter season's theme of Resurrection, members of a burned-out Shady Side church worshipped in a tent on the parking lot yesterday and vowed to build a church on the ruins.
"My mom says we don't have the steeple, but we have the people," said Garrett Dabbs, 9, of Shady Side.
A fire Wednesday night destroyed Centenary United Methodist Church, including its historic sanctuary. Palm Sunday services were held in a tent, and a procession of youngsters started in a morning drizzle. The smell of charred rubble hung in the air.
"Because of the Resurrection, we have hope. That's the most beautiful thing about the timing of this," said church member Erika McGrew of Shady Side.
The blaze caused about $1 million in damage plus an undetermined amount in other property losses. Anne Arundel County fire officials ruled the fire accidental. It started when halogen lamps, which were lying face-down, were turned on by a timer and ignited tar paper on the roof. The fire occurred during renovation and expansion.
The service yesterday, attended by about 300 people, mixed sadness and joy, as worshippers told each other that from the ashes of the old building a new structure will rise. Members recalled weddings and funerals and said they drew strength not from bricks and mortar but from the church community and God.
"I just know that we are a strong, strong congregation and, with God's help, we are going to go through this together," said Barry Cornwall, trustee chairman.
The regional United Methodist Church office has promised architectural, financial, legal and whatever other support Centenary needs.
"We will live through the Good Fridays of our lives, and we will rebuild," said the Rev. Edwin C. DeLong, former Centenary pastor and now an official in the regional Office of Congregational Development.
Congregants, though tearful, said they felt blessed that no one was hurt and thankful that whether it is Sunday school in members' homes or Good Friday services at the church next door, they have a place to worship.
Among the first to extend a hand was St. Matthew's United Methodist Church next door, a mostly black congregation that has a tight bond with mostly white Centenary. At the end of their service, members of St. Matthew's walked across the field to join Centenary's service.
Inside Centenary, the organ is melted, chandeliers hang like gnarled metal and water-logged hymnals rest on the burned rubble of what was a new roof. The fire's heat caused a stained-glass window of Jesus above the altar to burst, but a portrait of Jesus at the edge of the sanctuary was untouched by the flames. A bell that weighs several hundred pounds fell from the newly rebuilt steeple and remains wedged in the attic.
What remains of the building will be razed within days.
The congregation dates to the 1860s.
The oldest part of the church, its sanctuary, is a former Episcopal church that was in Owensville. When that congregation built a new building, Shady Side Methodists, who were meeting in members' homes, jumped at the chance for a church. In 1866, the Methodists took apart the wood frame Episcopal church and reassembled it on a site donated by Augustus Lerch, members said.
Despite renovations and additions, the old church remained. When the growing congregation expanded in the early 1940s, it covered the outside of the sturdy building with brick and the inside with plaster, and enlarged one end. Twenty years later, a second addition was built.
Glorious Shenton's grandfather, Robert Nowell, was one of the men who helped haul the church from Owensville. The church -- where she was baptized, where she and Howard Shenton were married in 1946, where they continue to attend -- is her spiritual home.
Howard Shenton also grew up in Centenary.
Though she cried for two days over the fire, Glorious Shenton, like other members, is determined that no matter where she has to go to worship until Centenary is rebuilt, it will remain her religious home and its members her extended family.
The Rev. Stephanie Vader, Centenary's pastor, said donations are arriving. How long it will take to build a church is unknown, but nobody expects members to drift away.
"There are a lot of people who will go a long way for this church," said Bryan Fender, a member, of West River.
Members of Centenary United Methodist Church of Shady Side, who lost their church building to fire last week, will worship at:
Maundy Thursday: Potluck supper and communion at 6:45 p.m., West River United Methodist Retreat Center, Chalk Point Road in West River.
Good Friday: noon and 7 p.m. at St. Matthew's United Methodist Church, Shady Side Road in Shady Side.
Easter: first service at 6:30 a.m., celebration of the Resurrection at 11 a.m. at the West River center.