An historic Robinson church was destroyed by fire Christmas night.
But while the blaze that gutted the 112-year-old First United Methodist Church remains under investigation, a church official vows the congregation will go on.
"It's still awfully early and we've got a lot of decisions to make, but we will continue," church board chairman Larry Quick told the Daily News.
Quick and Pastor Tiffany Black said church officials were to meet today to make plans for what to do this Sunday. Several other churches have already offered them the use of their facilities, and Robinson Mayor Roger Pethtel has offered the Methodists the use of the Robinson Community Center.
Robinson firefighters were called to the church, 201 W. Walnut, about 6:15 p.m. Tuesday. They discovered a "very large section" of the sanctuary and the basement engulfed in flames, Robinson Fire Chief Ted Atteberry said.
Heavy smoke was pouring from the building and flames were soon visible through the stained glass windows in the sanctuary.
By 7 p.m., 24 hours after the church's Christmas Eve services, flames had burst through the roof.
Firefighters quickly realized the blaze had a head start on them, Atteberry explained. They went into defensive mode, fighting to prevent the fire from spreading to the newer "education wing" on church's west side, or to the former Robinson Argus building south of the church as strong winds were gusting from the north.
Oblong, LaMotte, Hutsonville, Flat Rock, Prairie-Licking and West Union fire departments joined the fight. The Marathon refinery sent a hose truck to assist.
"Those guys did fantastic," Atteberry said. "I can't thank them enough."
Quick, who has been a member of FUMC for almost 50 years, said firefighters did an excellent job, especially in keeping embers from igniting the roof of the education wing, which houses offices and the Wesley Chapel. While it has heavy smoke and water damage, it did not burn.
Black, who has been pastor at the church for about a year and a half, also praised the firefighters and expressed gratitude to the community for the outpouring of support and prayer.
Robinson police, the Crawford County Sheriff's Department and auxiliary officers helped clear and barricade streets and keep back the growing crowd of onlookers. Atteberry praised them for their help. United Life Care Ambulance was on scene, as well, but no injuries were reported. "Thank God nobody was hurt," the chief said.
Water pressure became an issue. "A structure that large requires a large amount of water," Atteberry explained.
The fire departments also had to content with blustery winds, but stray embers were kept in check.
The size of the building was also an issue. Large walls can lose structural integrity, weaken and fall during fires. There was concern the east wall of the church might collapse across South Franklin. The danger remains, Atteberry said, and the street is still closed today.
Most of the fire departments had departed by 11:30 p.m., but Robinson remained on the scene, continuing to battle hot spots in the ruins. The last fireman returned to the station about 2 a.m. An auxiliary police officer kept watch over the structure for the rest of the night.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. An early report that a door was discovered open at the church has not been confirmed. It is also unknown if there is any connection to an attempt to set fire to a northeast exterior door at the church a few years ago. Quick said that fire was quickly extinguished.
Atteberry, an investigator from the Illinois State Fire Marshal's Office and church officials were to enter the building at 10 a.m. Officials were expected to remove records stored in fire-proof cabinets. They were allowed to remove some computers from the office area late Tuesday or early today.
Originally organized as the Methodist Episcopal Church of Robinson in 1846, the congregation built its first church on the site in 1866. The present church was constructed in 1899, with a dedication service conducted April 8, 1900. The education wing was added in 1960-61.
First United has been averaging 115 to 120 in attendance on Sundays, Black said.
With its tall belfry and large stained-glass windows, FUMC had become a landmark in Robinson.
"Whatever we do next will become the new landmark," Quick said.
Posted: Saturday, December 29, 2012
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Our hearts are broken with the loss of our beautiful building! Thank God memories cannot be destroyed by fire, as there are so many that were created in that structure. We feel, knowing the strength of that congregation, and the community support system, that God will prevail and the church will rise up stronger than ever! We feel helpless being so far away, but our prayers are with the congregation, Pastor Black, and our good friend Larry Quick. God Bless and restore you all! Richard and Marilyn Boyd