The fenced-in, charred remains of First Centenary United Methodist Church are a painful reminder of the fire that destroyed the century-old Shady Side institution a little more than three months ago. But throughout this small bayside community, the spirit of Centenary has lived on and, some believe, has grown stronger.
Since the fire April 12, which was ruled accidental, the members of Centenary have pulled together to keep the congregation going. Even members who hadn't been seen at church for quite some time have attended services conducted at several sites.
Members of the congregation volunteered to store whatever could be salvaged from the blaze in their garages and opened their living rooms for Bible study groups and meetings. They also have taken part in fund-raisers, and printed T-shirts with "Working to Rebuild Centenary" on them.
"We've really pulled together," said the Rev. Stephanie Vader, the church's pastor for four years - her first assignment out of seminary. "There are folks coming back to church who I haven't seen for a while."
For a church with an active membership of 150, although 300 are registered, the renewed sense of commitment sparked by tragedy has bolstered efforts to build a new place of worship. A planning committee has met weekly, and update meetings are held after the weekly service.
Vader said a new church could be built in about two years at the same site. It will be more suited to activities than the old church, but will re-create some of the same features as its predecessor, such as a round stained-glass window of Jesus surrounded by children.
"It will have that traditional feel that really fits with our community," Vader said.
The project will cost more than $1 million, much of it covered by insurance from the fire, she said. The church has staged fund-raisers, including funnel cake sales and the Strawberry Festival, to help raise the rest of the money, and the community has been receptive.
A donation jar at a local store collected more than $1,000 in a short time after the fire, one member said.
Since the blaze, which started when a tarp caught fire, the church has kept on track. Only one service - the Thursday evening service immediately after the fire - was canceled.
Services are held at Oakland United Methodist Church in West River, and child care and administrative support are run out of mobile trailers.
Donald and Teresa Rose, members since they were married nine years ago, have been holding the Tuesday night Bible study gatherings at their West River home since the fire. They've also allowed the church to store tables, chairs and other furniture not destroyed by the fire in their three-car garage.
"We're just trying to help out," said Teresa Rose, one of the many members who picked through the debris after the fire.
Rose, whose youngest of three children was the last child baptized at the old church, said she, too, has seen an increased enthusiasm among the congregation. Many, she said, are excited about the prospects of a new church, which could have a community center and more multipurpose rooms for programs.
"They've realized the church is the people and not just a building," Rose said. "They don't take it for granted anymore."
Centenary dates to the mid- 19th century, when the congregation, which had been meeting in people's homes, bought an Episcopal church near Galesville in 1867. They dismantled the church and relocated it in Shady Side. A fellowship hall was added about 100 years later.
The church began a four-year renovation project in October 1998, including replacing the roof, said Camille Vogts, a member for four years.
"It was just literally going to fall down," Vogts said.
Vogts and her husband, Ray, were on vacation in West Virginia when the fire occurred, but a neighbor came to their home a few days later to tell them.
"We rushed to the church to see it," said an emotional Vogts. "It was just devastating."
Vogts recalled the Palm Sunday service held under a tent in the parking lot with the remains of the church lying in the background.
"Everybody just got up and talked about their memories of the church," Vogts said. "We realized then that it was just a building, and we were the church."