The answer to a Hampden church congregation's prayers arrived this week when new roofing timbers began rising above the nave of their burned 1879 building.
Lightning from an August thunderstorm struck the belfry at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. Within minutes, its roof and the upper reaches of the stone-and-frame building caught fire and burned. Firefighters stopped the flames by training streams of water inside the church, which sat in ruins before being resaturated by heavy autumn rains.
"We lost our plaster walls, floors and carpet. Our ceilings had to come down. Our pews were damaged beyond repair. We had three feet of water in the basement. But we will come back," said Betty Callahan, the congregation's treasurer and a lay leader. "It was an incredible relief to see that roof go up after all we've been through."
Congregation members voted to spend an initial $200,000 to stabilize their Gothic Revival building, at Chestnut Avenue and 33rd Street, using 10 percent of the $2 million in insurance funds that covered the building. They said the initial repairs will seal the building from the elements until church governing authorities clear spending more money on restoration.
The new roof should be complete by the end of the month, members of the congregation said.
"We are going to get this done and make it happen," said Frank G. Dean, president of the church's board of trustees. "The congregation is very supportive of our plan to rebuild."
The new trusses and roof are the first phase of rebuilding the church, which is governed by the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.
"Our church looked like a war zone. People would come up to me and ask, 'When are you doing the roof? It was a constant question," said Callahan. "People thought it was going to sit there and be an eyesore. They were afraid of that."
She said that her group has hired a consultant to help make a case with the United Methodist leadership why the remaining insurance funds should be spent on a church that has a relatively small membership.
She said the building's refurbishment could bring new uses, such as a community service office or area for preschoolers. She said an upgraded church kitchen could accommodate a monthly free lunch for the homeless and low-income people. She also hopes to revive the church's thrift shop.
"We are now looking at the fire as an opportunity to make the building accessible to the handicapped," said Callahan. "It's a beautiful church, and we have a dedicated corps of people who are helping us."
While they are without a church building, the congregation is worshiping at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, also in Hampden.