MAXTON — An early morning fire destroyed a 132-year-old church on Thursday, but did not destroy the spirits of its congregation.
“The Lord never takes without giving. It may be bad right now but through his own natural way, we know there is something greater,” said Michael Ellerbee, interim pastor of Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church.
No one was injured in the fire at the church at 73 Deangelo Road, according to county Fire Marshal Stephanie Chavis. The cause of the fire was unknown as of late Thursday afternoon. The investigation continues.
Sanitation workers saw that the church was burning at about 6:40 a.m., said Terry Gales, Queheel Volunteer Fire Department assistant chief.
“If there would have been people in there, it would have been bad. A church that old, is lighter wood,” Gales said. “I’m sorry it happened and thankful no one was hurt.”
The wood in structures that age become extremely flammable over time, Gales said. The wind caused the flames to rip through the church within 10 minutes.
Sandy Grove was established in 1886, rebuilt in the 1942 and renovated in 1980, according a now scorched placard affixed to the remaining foundation of what was a place of prayer.
The estimated value of the historic structure is $244,000, according to Chavis.
Ronald McDonald, a 13-year veteran of the Queheel department, arrived first on scene in his personal vehicle. He’d seen much bigger fires, but this one was concerning, he said.
“There were power lines down and two propane tanks,” McDonald said. “I was relieved they didn’t explode. They were burning real good when we got here.”
The gas line and power lines were shut off quickly, he said.
Queheel firefighters, who were on the scene about 7 a.m., were assisted by the Smith’s, Stewartsville, Red Springs and Scotland volunteer fire departments.
Also at the scene were agents from the State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Deputies and a fire investigator with the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office arrived to help investigate the fire. County Emergency Medical Services and county Fire Marshal personnel also were called to the scene.
Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church is known for extending resources to neighboring churches and people with ties to the Maxton area, and for offering free funeral services, said Hattie Bridges, the church’s 66-year-old administrative assistant who has been connected to the church since 1977.
“Anytime people wanted to use the church, it was available. As a matter of fact we’re supposed to have a funeral here, today,” Bridges said. “The family wanted to have their service and burial in Maxton.”
Dorothy Martin’s funeral service was scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at Sandy Grove. Martin was to be buried at Piney Grove United Methodist Church.
Martin lived in New York and was from Fayetteville but had ties to the Maxton area, Bridges said.
The funeral was relocated to St. Matthew AME Zion Church, also in Maxton, because of the fire.
Sandy Grove Deacon Frankie Hall, 66, spoke with the family and explained the circumstances.
“All our music equipment, all the food, it’s all burnt up,” Hall said. “They said they understand.”
Hall, who had his wife, Jennie Hall, by his side, stared aimlessly at what is now a pile of rubble and tried to hold back tears.
“There are things in there that are priceless. We had a 100-year-old organ that was in there — pictures,” he said. “I wish I could go home and process this, but I can’t.”
Hall said he remembers passing by the church frequently as a child.
“I use to get pulled in a wagon right here,” he said. “Me and my wife were married at this church. A lot of memories.”
Longtime member Minnie Pipkin Miller, 73, got a call from her granddaughter about her home church being on fire.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I remember when I was a little girl, we (she and her siblings) would walk three miles cross the railroad tracks to this here church for Sunday school. Our parents would join later.”
She is saddened but is optimistic, Miller said.
“Where do we go from here? We don’t know that right now,” she said. “But with God’s guidance we are gonna be OK.”
Sunday’s service has been cancelled, but will take place April 15, interim Pastor Ellerbeee said. The church’s temporary location will be announced once it is selected.
A “Sandy Grove rebuild” GoFundMe page will be established to help raise money for the rebuilding effort.
“We will rebuild,” Ellerbee said. “We are going to follow the leadership of the Lord.”
Reach Annick Joseph by calling 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected] or Facebook Annick MultiMedia Journalist.