Like many, Nicola Vitiello turns to social media as a way of starting his day. But on this Sunday morning, what he saw on Facebook while vacationing in Delaware was something he just couldn’t wrap his head around. The First Presbyterian Church building in Girard, PA, where he has been the pastor for the past 7 ½ years was gutted by a fire just hours earlier, leaving behind only the remnants of two brick towers that stood in front of the building.
“I was stunned. It was a denial almost,” Nicola said when seeing the pictures. “There was a sadness for sure. I was also just thinking there’s going to be so much to do as a result of this. We’re in for such a long process of the rebuilding and going through everything from the old building.
“I was also thinking about, for many of the people, most of the congregation has been there longer than I have been there – and some of them many decades. And I was thinking about for them what it means to lose a building that has been part of their life for some people 80 years.”
The cause of the blaze has not been determined, and Nicola admitted that because of the extensive damage, there’s a good chance a cause will never be known. Somewhat amazingly, a couple crosses that were displayed on a wall in the sanctuary and on the steeple were recovered with little damage. Some historical papers that were stored in two safes were spared, and a few documents from a filing cabinet and desk were also found to be somewhat intact, but other than that it was a total loss for a building that was constructed in 1892.
“A good part of the building has not been gone through because it’s not structurally safe for us to be walking around in,” Nicola added.
The plan is to rebuild on the current church lot for the congregation with a membership of 107 and a weekly Sunday attendance in the mid-60s, but a timetable hasn’t been established.
“The rebuilding conversation is not there now because we’re still just focusing on operationally getting going,” Nicola added.
Asked if this was an opportunity to consider merging with another congregation, Nicola quickly answered, “No, that was not discussed.”
Nearly 200 people turned out two days after the fire for what Nicola described as a funeral service for the building that was held on the front lawn of the Girard Church. It began a healing process for a congregation that has been coping fairly well with the tragedy.
“I think people have been finding comfort in being with each other,” Nicola added. “There’s tremendous sadness, certainly. I think the shock is still there, like it’s a bad dream. You keep thinking that you’ll just wake up and you can just pull into the church parking lot, get your keys out and walk into the building.”
For the next three months, the First Church congregation will worship on Sunday mornings at Lake City Presbyterian Church, which is located roughly five minutes from Girard. By the end of October, the session will revisit the situation and determine a plan moving forward.
For the time being, office space has been donated to the church, allowing for Nicola and other staff to have a place to work throughout the week. It’s just part of an outreach by the community that has been a blessing to the congregation.
“There were many people from the community who came by at some point on Sunday (the day of the fire) and were just standing on the church grounds for a while, shedding tears and talking to other people who were there,” Nicola said. “Some people were praying. I’ve gotten calls from people in the community – from the school district and others asking if they can help in some way. Many of the pastors have called me and asked if their church can help with something. There’s a community loss.”
A list of office items that are needed, ranging from furniture to desk supplies to maintenance equipment, has been created by the church’s leadership and can be found here. They do not want “castoff furniture,” however. People can call (814) 774-3985 or e-mail email@example.com, but calls would be preferred starting Monday, Aug. 6.
Nicola has reached out to local clergy seeking help as he rebuilds his personal library. He also touched base with the Rev. James Dietrich, who was the pastor at Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Corsica, PA, when lightning struck the church’s bell tower, leading to a destructive fire 15 years ago that wiped out the building. James offered some helpful advice to Nicola on how to cope with devastation of this magnitude.
“It was helpful to hear the story of someone who has gone through this, had a church rebuilt and lived out into that for a while,” Nicola said.
The Presbytery of Lake Erie has also been a valuable resource for the Girard Church during this time of need. Not only did it create a “Shower of Prayers for the Girard Church” that included more than 150 messages of support from as far away as Texas, the presbytery, along with the Synod of the Trinity and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, has given a grant to the church to assist in the significant costs associated with this type of disaster.
One immediate setback to the community was the Girard Church’s food pantry, which is housed in a small building adjacent to the building. Open twice a month, the food pantry building was not damaged but could not be accessed for its first regular distribution date after the fire because of the property being roped off. Instead, the distribution site was moved to another church’s parking lot to continue that service to its neighbors. The church building continues to be fenced off but people are able to park in the lot and access the food pantry building going forward.
It’s just one of the ways the congregation is beginning to move forward following a fire that has taken its building but certainly not its heart and soul.
“Seeing the support that we’ve had of generosity (has helped the congregation stay upbeat),” Nicola said. “We have a long, healing journey ahead. Seeing the connectional nature of the church, seeing the larger church support us is a way of seeing God in this.”
Note: Congregations are welcome to make gifts to the Girard Church’s recovery effort. Make any checks out to “First Presbyterian Church of Girard” and mail them to P.O. Box 106, Girard, PA 16417. Mark the checks “Fire Recovery.” Individuals are most welcome to write checks as well; however, the Girard Church does not desire for you to send checks to them at the expense of your support of your own congregation. If you chose to send a check, a particularly effective way to do that would be to send the check through “Erie Gives” on Aug. 14. Money received through “Erie Gives” would also benefit from some additional matching money from the community.