From ashes of the old, a new church will arise

By Lynn R. Parks

Over two and a half years ago, members of Gethsemane United Methodist Church in Reliance stood out in the middle of the night and watched their church burn to the ground. "It was a long night," said 46-year member Bob Smith, Reliance. Smith and Jane Wright, church administrative assistant and a 24-year member, watched as members of the Seaford Volunteer Fire Department fought to save the building. They watched as firefighters and church members carried furniture, hymnals, Bibles and a painting from the sanctuary. And after the fire department ran out of water, they watched as the sanctuary went up in flames. "When we saw the second floor collapse, we knew it was finished," said Wright. "It was awful. I don't think that anything could ever make up for that." Maybe not. But the 177-member church has come close. A new 9,700-square foot building is nearing completion and could be completed in time for this year's New Year's Eve service. Smith is a member of the nine-person building committee and serves as liaison between the committee and the contractor, Paul E. Lehman Construction, Chambersburg, Pa. Construction started March 20, he said, but was delayed six weeks by rains which turned the building site into a pond. Cost of the new building is $776,000, the bulk of which will be paid with the insurance settlement the church received. Donations from the community and from other churches eliminated the need for a mortgage on the building. Site work, including paving, will cost about $90,000. "And there are a few extras that cost between $10,000 and $12,000," said Smith. In addition to acting as contractor, Lehman Construction was also the church's architect. Design of the brick church - a 200-seat sanctuary facing the Delaware 20 with wings on the east and west sides - was approved by a hand vote of the entire congregation. The highlight of the church - the first thing people will see when they walk through the front door - is a stained glass window set in the wall between the cathedral-ceilinged lobby and the sanctuary. The window is made up of two stained glass windows that were removed from the original building during a renovation. Stored in a garage, they were spared by the fire and make up the rectangular shape at the bottom of the window. The semi-circle at the top of the window is also stained glass. But its parts are bits and pieces of stained glass that were collected by parishioners from the ground after the fire. The fire was so hot that the windows exploded. Creation of the new window, and of the stained glass windows that will grace the church lobby, is by Art Glass Crafters in Monkton, Md. The remaining stained glass windows will be made by Jim Bongard, Seaford. Four memorial windows will be put in the sanctuary and two others at the front of the building.

The building will be carpeted throughout in "mulberry," a blue-green carpet highlighted with mulberry flecks. In the sanctuary, the wooden pews will be made comfortable with pads covered in maroon fabric. Walls will be painted off-white. Eight classrooms, four in the west wing, four in the east, will accommodate Sunday school classes and a nursery. The building will also feature an office, in which Wright will work, and the pastor's study. Heat will be provided by water, warmed by propane, that will be pumped through pipes laid beneath the floor. The church will be furnished in part by items that were salvaged from the fire, including an oak pulpit, oak altar chairs and oak flower stands. The altar table, which was damaged when a timber fell on it, was repaired by Smith and will grace the foyer. A painting of Jesus in Gethsemane, created by long-time member Helen Lucia Moore, was also saved from the burning building. While it has not yet been determined where the painting will hang, it will be part of the new church. The old brick Gethsemane United Methodist Church was built in 1905. When it burned, the minister was the Rev. Dale Wilson. The Rev. Gayle Conrow became pastor in July. Since the fire, services have been held in the fellowship hall, which was completed just months before the church was destroyed. According to Smith, no cause was ever found for the fire that destroyed the old church. "They called it undetermined, probably electrical," he said. Certain precautions were taken with the new building to help prevent it from being lost in a fire. Fire walls, which contain flames for up to an hour, were installed. The central section of the building has a steel frame (the two wings have wooden frames). "It is great to see it all come together," said Smith. "And now, everything is happening so fast." Even so, he does not expect that the new church will completely replace the old. "It can't ever be the same," he said. Wright agrees. "This is nice," she said, looking at the new white steeple, gleaming in fall sunshine. "But I'd give anything to have the old church back. This is not home."

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