LORAIN — Standing in the parking lot of First Evangelical Lutheran Church as fire hoses snaked around his feet, the Rev. Dr. Linwood H. Chamberlain hung his head low Thursday morning and watched silently as flames ravaged the 90-year-old building.
“All those beautiful stained glass windows are gone. Just gone,” he said.
Lorain Fire Department firefighters trained a high-pressure water stream on the roof of the building. Window glass, shingles and bricks charred from intense heat and soaked from firefighters’ hoses crashed to the ground.
“It’s just hard to lose this kind of history,” the retired pastor said. “I know the congregation will move on. We’re a strong bunch, but we have just lost our history.”
The church has dominated the downtown Lorain corner of Sixth Street and Washington Avenue since 1924. About 700 parishioners are listed as members, with at least 200 people attending Sunday services each week.
Many stood a stone’s throw from the church grounds as firefighters from Lorain, Sheffield Township, Elyria and Amherst worked for hours on the blaze.
The fire started just before 6:30 a.m. in the south side of the building, burning through to the church roof until firefighters were able to control it about 9:30 a.m., said Lorain Fire Chief Tom Brown. He added that firefighters worked through the day to put out “hot spots” in the building.
The south side of the church holds a kitchen as well as the sanctuary and, in the basement, a furnace room.
The Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating. Brown said it was too early to tell what could have caused the fire.
“Information from the public is crucial to solving these kinds of cases,” said state Fire Marshal Larry Flowers. “Investigators are asking for assistance so that they can get to the bottom of what caused the fire. Any recordings or pictures of the incident could be valuable to them.”
$1 million organ lost
The First Evangelical Lutheran sanctuary was home to a one-of-a-kind John Brombaugh Opus 4 organ. Dedicated in June 1970, the baroque period-inspired instrument received a historic organ citation from the Organ Historical Society in 2011 and was valued at nearly $1 million.
“It really is irreplaceable,” the Rev. Jimmy Madsen, pastor, said.
Music Director and Organist Brian Wentzel said losing the organ will be especially difficult for the church to overcome. The instrument stood as the focal point of the church sanctuary for more than 40 years. A strong music program, including several annual community concerts, was built around musicians performing on the organ.
“You can’t just go out and get a new one,” he said. “I know people will say it’s just a building and the congregation that is still here is really the church. But that organ was our church, too.”
Wentzel said it was the first church organ built by Brombaugh, who later went on to become one of the most prominent church organ builders in the world. It took more than two years to put every pipe in place.
Many well-known Lorain residents have worshipped at the church over the years, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who now lives in Cleveland with his wife, Chronicle-Telegram columnist Connie Schultz.
“My family’s 10 years at First (Evangelical) Lutheran revealed to us a church committed to helping the community around it and nurturing the community within,” Brown said hours after the first embers traveled to church rafters.
“On a personal note, First (Evangelical) Lutheran and its kind congregation provided a place of solace and comfort for me — and for my daughters, Emily and Elizabeth — during my many years as a single father,” he added. “This morning, even as the church continued to smolder, congregants gathered near the grounds to discuss how to continue feeding those in need and when they can begin the hard work of restoring their beloved church. That is the spirit of First Lutheran.”
‘This is my family’
That spirit was reflected in members of the community who prayed, sang hymns and held tight to one another while trading stories with non-members who just came to see what was going on.
“This is my family,” Sandra Jensen said as she watched the building that she frequented for 17 years smolder. But Jensen, a member of the church council for two years, remained hopeful.
“We’ll rebuild,” she said.
First Evangelical Lutheran was known as a place where a hot meal could be found, sincere prayers were offered and even a place to call home was available to anyone in need.
Survived state’s deadliest tornado
Referring to those stained glass windows, Chamberlain said he knows it was God who spared them in the months before the church opened when the deadliest tornado in Ohio history struck Lorain and nearby Sandusky on June 28, 1924. The windows, which depicted Jesus and scenes from the Bible in brilliant color, were supposed to be the finishing touch on the building project — something to make the church stand out in the community.
After the twister ripped through the city and left devastation in its wake — 72 people were killed that day in Lorain — Chamberlain said it was as if the church was given a new direction and stepped firmly into its true mission.
“The members started a soup kitchen that day and just fed people who needed to be fed,” he said. “We have never stopped. There are still a lot of food programs and programs for families that take place at this church.”
Serving the community
The church operated a Meals on Wheels program until 2011. Volunteers also participated in a monthly food pantry sponsored by Lorain Coooperative Ministry. On the second Thursday of each month, volunteers served a hot meal and hosted the food pantry. The church would see anywhere from 150 to 200 families who would come for free food and encouragement.
Shari Yeamans, who worked maintenance for the church and has been involved with the hot meals tradition since 2002, remembers how people from across Lorain County would line up two hours before the church opened its doors on serving days.
Though the fire may temporarily change the nature of some of the programs, volunteers and church members refuse to let it take away the food pantry.
Juliana Chase-Morefield, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank in Lorain, said the food bank regularly supplies First Evangelical Lutheran Church with food for its pantry. Because of the fire, Chase-Morefield said the food bank is working with the church to determine how to keep the pantry alive. All of the food the church lost from its pantry in the fire will be replaced, she said.
Another of the church’s programs, the Front Door Ministry, previously known as Love Emergency Aid Fund, or LEAF, has been around in some form since at least 1982. Its purpose is to help people who need food, gas money, help with prescription costs or other assistance.
Health fairs are sometimes held at the church, and it’s one of few churches that continues the practice of a parish nurse through the Mercy Regional Medical Center’s parish nursing program.
“The good and best thing about this church is how heartwarming they are as soon as you walk through the door,” said 57-year-old Verna Grandberry, of Lorain. “They reach for your hand as soon as you walk through the door and ask you what you need and how they can help.”
Grandberry said she once asked a woman at the church if it was OK if she just came there to pray sometimes or ask for prayer. She never joined the church, but felt a kinship with the building.
“She said, ‘You can come here for anything because that’s why we’re here,’ ” Grandberry said. “I will never forget how she made me feel. This is sad because this is everybody’s church.”
First Evangelical Lutheran is a part of Family Promise of Lorain County, a network of churches that offers its buildings to the homeless on a rotating weekly schedule. This week, the church was empty. Families were due to show up next week.
“Thank God no one was here. I don’t even want to think about what this could have been if we had families here,” said 71-year-old Sharon Kopronica. “It was so early. They would have just been waking up and getting fed.”
So many memories
Hours after the flames broke out, the building still smoked and burned as Kopronica watched. She spoke in soft whispers to other congregants. She cried a few tears.
The place she first visited with her grandmother. Gone.
The church where she was baptized. Gone.
The venue of all three of her children’s weddings. Gone.
“I have a church family and this is my church home,” she said. “But you know what? Our church family sticks together. We do a lot of good programs here, and no one in the church is ready to see that stop.”
The red brick, three-story building is largely destroyed.
Chamberlain, Madsen and members of the congregation listened as firefighters — some of whom regularly attend the church — were forced to break through windows, rip through the roof and dig through exterior walls in search of hot spots. The sanctuary, like the organ inside, was ruined, and an east annex of the building built in 1962 suffered water and smoke damage.
Madsen, who has led the church for 35 years, is confident the church will rebound.
Clad in a T-shirt and blue sweatshirt — signs he rushed from his home roughly a mile away when he heard the news — Madsen said the members are ready for whatever God has in store for them to rebuild their church.
“We are still a very active, strong congregation with a strong worship life,” he said. “We feed people. We provide assistance wherever it is needed and pretty much are open all the time.”
First Evangelical Lutheran is about family and community first, he said.
“Look around you,” Madsen said. “They look at this like it’s their church even through they are not members.”
As if on cue, a man thrust a small piece of paper into Madsen’s hand.
His name and phone number were scribbled on the note. He lives just up the street and pledged to be there if the church needs his help, he told the pastor.
Madsen said the church is insured and church leaders will come up with a plan to rebuild soon enough.
Before the final flames were extinguished, Madsen and Chamberlain already were planning when and where to hold the Sunday service before deciding on the parking lot of the ruined church, only three days later.
“We will be out here Sunday,” Madsen said. “As long as they let us on this property, we will have church right here in the parking lot. We need to be here.”
The worship service will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday in the church parking lot or grassy field across from the church. The service will take place rain or shine. All are welcome to attend and are asked to bring a lawn chair.
Reporter Anna Merriman contributed to this report.
Seeking your help
The Division of State Fire Marshal is seeking video, audio or pictures from the public regarding Thursday’s fire at First Evangelical Lutheran Church. The state agency is conducting an investigation in conjunction with the Lorain Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Anyone with information is asked to call the State Fire Marshal’s Fire & Explosion Investigation Bureau at (800) 589-2728.