Mid-morning fire destroys Trinity UMC in Paris, Tenn.
Trinity UMC in Paris, Tenn., was lost to fire on April 23. Photos by Ervin Dutton (top left) and Rev. Sky McCracken (top right and bottom).
By Lane Gardner Camp, Director of Communications
Two churches in the Memphis Conference were lost to fire last week.
Three days after lightning destroyed Mt. Pleasant UMC in Dresden, Tenn., Trinity UMC in Paris, Tenn., caught fire and burned on Thursday, April 23.
Though the official cause of the fire was officially undetermined on Friday, Rev. Jolinne Downey, pastor, said foul play was not suspected. An investigation of the cause is underway.
Trinity UMC has a membership of approximately 200 with an average Sunday worship of 75.
“We are just grateful no one was hurt.” said Downey. “Things can be replaced.”
A “handful of people” were in the church at the time the fire broke out before 10:30 a.m., she said, but she was not one of them. She was at a local hospital with a family member undergoing surgery when she received news of the fire via text message. Arriving at the church located at 409 N. Wilson by 11 a.m., she saw flames and “a lot of heavy, black smoke pouring out” of the building.
As she approached, she said she realized right away it would be a “complete loss as far as the building was concerned.”
With help from the Paris Fire Department that responded, most records needed to operate on a day-to-day basis were retrieved from the church’s office as the fire blazed primarily in the sanctuary and fellowship hall. She described the “office part” of the church as being the farthest away from the fire.
Downey expressed gratitude for the work of fire, police and other emergency personnel in responding to the fire and managing the crowd.
Describing the reaction of the congregation, Downey said, “We are heartbroken, but we are very much aware that what burned is a building. The church is still standing. We still have a mission – to share God’s love.”
She elaborated, “We are moving forward. God can use this to do great things.”
Downey did not want to minimize the “tragic loss” of the building, but stressed, “The church is the people and we’re still here.”
As a crowd gathered to watch the blonde brick building burn, Downey said there were two particularly “hard moments” – when the white steeple collapsed and when the stained-glass windows popped.
Rev. Dr. Joe Geary, director of connectional ministries and outgoing Paris District superintendent for the Memphis Conference, was among the witnesses, along with numerous other area clergy who were in Paris that morning for a previously-scheduled district meeting at Paris First UMC.
As pictures of the fire and text messages like “It’s bad” and “It will be a total loss” were received by the assembled clergy, the meeting was ended and many traveled to the scene of the fire.
While Geary has been to churches in the aftermaths of fires, he said this was the first church he had ever seen “on fire.”
“I hope to never see another one. It was so painful … I instinctively held my hand to my mouth,” he reflected.
Citing numerous district events that have been held at Trinity UMC, he said there were “a lot of memories in that building.”
Geary called it painful and comforting to be present as the church burned. The sights, sounds and smell of the fire, a symbol of death, were the painful part. The comforting part was that everyone gathered together and prayed together.
HISTORY OF THE CHURCH
Trinity UMC was organized in 1956. The building was completed in 1957, according to historical records provided by Ann Phillips, historian and archivist for the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church that includes West Tennessee and Western Kentucky.
A history of the church written in 1960 says that when Trinity UMC was formed, it was the first new church “in the Paris District in over 50 years.”
Geary called Trinity UMC “a nice physical plant with lovely stained-glass windows.” Because of when it was built, he described it as a “very physically-accessible building” with a “suburban feel.”
In addition to dealing with unexpected building changes at this time, Trinity UMC also will experience a pastoral leadership change in coming months, as announced in early April by Bishop Bill McAlilly and the Memphis Conference cabinet.
Downey is projected to move from Trinity UMC to St. Mark’s UMC in Memphis, Tenn., in June. Following her at Trinity UMC will be supply pastor Dennis Vance, Jr. from Eva UMC in Eva, Tenn.
Vance, a licensed professional counselor, was among the first three clergy dispatched from the district clergy meeting to the fire when initial messages were received about the blaze.
Rev. Dr. Richard Clark, superintendent of the Tennessee River District (formerly Jackson and Paris Districts), called Vance's unexpected introduction to Trinity UMC one of the “better or more thorough introductions” of a newly appointed clergy to his or her new congregation. "He was working among the people (at the fire) as a pastor and really connecting with them.”
Downey drew high praise from Geary for her work and presence in the aftermath of the fire. “She stood tall. She was with her people. She has led very well throughout this.”
Though she lost a portion of her personal library of books in the fire, Downey said one bright spot is that she has fewer books to pack for her upcoming move and “preacher friends” are offering to replace books on prayer and spiritual formation that were most of what she lost.
The day after the fire, on Friday, April 24, at 5:30 p.m., approximately 200 people from the church and community gathered in the church’s parking lot for an informal prayer service.
The church’s parking lot also was the location for Sunday morning worship on April 26, as the fire still smoldered. Clark and Geary were among approximately 100 people who turned out with lawn chairs and blankets to be part of the service presented from a flatbed trailer.
“What Do We Do Now?” was the title of the message delivered by Connie Wilson, Trinity UMC’s lay leader. The title was chosen well before the fire occurred when she was scheduled to speak while the pastor was to be away.
Downey reported today that, beginning May 3, Trinity UMC will have Sunday worship at 11 .m. in the Family Life Center of Paris First UMC at 101 E. Blythe Street. Wednesday night study groups for children and adults will be offered at various locations.
“There is work to do, but I know it will get done,” Downey offered. “I know we’ll get everything we need on a day-to-day basis.”
Any church or individual that would like to help Trinity UMC with emergency operating or rebuilding funds may send donations to the Paris office of the Tennessee River District:
Tennessee River District
The United Methodist Church
810 E. Wood Street, Suite A
PO Box 28
Paris, TN 38242
Downey may be contacted at 731-636-0330 or email@example.com.