Fire Destroys a Church’s 142-Year-Old Sanctuary but Not the Spirit or the Mission of the Congregation

Editor’s Note: this article has been updated from its original version to include new information about the time of the lightning strike and to correct the number of years Rev. Quillen has been in ministry.

By Rick Wolcott*

On the morning of Friday, May 20, Mary Hughes drove past the parking lot of Grace United Methodist Church on Walnut Street in Coshocton and was stopped by the traffic light at the intersection of S. 4th Street. Sitting in her car waiting for the light to change she was just feet away from the front door of the church’s sanctuary that was built 1880.

“When the light turned green that’s when the lightning hit the church and sparks just flew up there,” said Hughes, a 10-year member of Grace UMC and a former member of Coshocton Park UMC.

Rev. Deborah Quillen reports that video from a camera mounted on city hall shows that lightning struck Coshocton Grace UMC at 9:23 a.m. on Friday, May 20. At 10:04 a.m. that day, operators received the first 911 call reporting that smoke was coming from the church. Coshocton Mayor Mark Mills was with the fire chief when he got the call from dispatch.

“He said, ‘I’ve got to go there’s smoke coming out of Grace Church’ and he peeled out of the parking lot, and I knew it was serious. When you have a big structure like that, and you see smoke it’s always bad,” Mills shared.

And it was bad. Seven fire departments, and more than 70 firefighters battled the flames shooting through the roof of the sanctuary. Thankfully no one was in the building, and no one was physically injured. But many, many people in and outside of Coshocton are in considerable pain over the damage caused by the fire at Coshocton Grace United Methodist Church (Three Rivers District).

“Seeing the church on fire I had a flood of memories, a lot of things, for me, happened at that church and in that church,” said Mills, who has been mayor of Coshocton for the past two and a half years. “My parents were married at Coshocton Grace 49 years ago. I was baptized in the church and confirmed there, went to youth group there, and went to Camp Wanake for three years through the church. I was married in the church. Many of the people I have met around the county, because we have two school districts here, I met through the church.”

“Mills and I used to run around here during youth group, so seeing the church on fire was very tough for me and for all the people who were here watching,” said Jason Ross, who is back living in the community that shaped his childhood and who now works for Bailfish Services, the restoration company working on the church building after the fire. “When I was in junior high this church was the most popular church around and the youth group on Wednesday night and Sunday night was amazing. I moved away in high school, but this church always had a special place in my mind.”

Asked what went through her mind when she learned that the church was on fire, Gloria Drobnack, who was married in the church many years ago said, “Oh heavens. I couldn’t believe it!”

District Superintendent the Rev. Kelly Brown, whose office is across the street from the church, said seeing people in pain as they watched the flames shooting out of the roof as firefighters sprayed water through the shattered stained-glass windows was an emotional experience.

“It was emotional to see the building in flames. It was emotional as church members began to come and see what was happening and were overcome, and it was emotional to see the outpouring from the community.”

“It was surreal,” said Quillen, who is in her 28th year of ministry and has served Coshocton Grace UMC since July 1 of last year. “The phone rang and one of my church members said, ‘Pastor Deb, the church is on fire.’ It was my day off, so I was doing day-off things. I came up to the church and they wouldn’t let me through. I had to park several blocks away. I could see the flames shooting up and my heart sank. All I wanted to do was cry but immediately I was met by church people, so I knew that I had to be strong for them. So, I did what I needed to do and hugged people and comforted people.”

Out of the Ashes Hope Lives

Just over 48 hours after lightning struck the steeple of the church, Quillen stood in front of the congregation and said, “Welcome to Grace United Methodist Church.” She spoke from the front of the Canal Lewisville UMC sanctuary. Those in the pews on Sunday, May 22, were worshipping in a different church building, but those worshipping online connected in the same place as always, www.facebook.com/GraceUMC. Quillen shared that both Pastor Wes George of Canal Lewisville UMC and the Rev. Bob Mitchell, pastor of Roscoe UMC, offered Coshocton Grace UMC the use of their respective sanctuaries for worship. She chose for the Grace congregation to worship at Canal Lewisville to keep Sunday worship time as close as possible to what they were used to.

As Quillen spoke to her congregation in its temporary space, projected on a screen behind her was a photo that, since the fire, had quickly gone viral on social media.

After the flames had been extinguished officials from the state fire marshal’s office and the county’s disaster response team and the church’s Brotherhood Mutual insurance agent went into the church to assess the damage. Shortly after entering the building one of the officials ran outside to bring Quillen into the parlor. There on a table, untouched by the flames that destroyed the sanctuary above it and the water that stopped the spread of the flames but flooded the parlor, sat a painting of Jesus Christ.

Quillen told the congregation, “This picture is a reminder that Jesus is with us. It doesn’t matter what else is going on, Jesus is walking with us, and he is walking with us through this time of fire and rebirth.”

People were shocked to see the photo. Michael Slusher was not.

“I do this job because of the Bible,” said Slusher, general manager of the Columbus, Ohio office of Mammoth Restoration. He then explained that on his very first restoration job, a job he took only for the paycheck, he found a Bible in the burned-out home of a widow of a former pastor. At that moment he made the decision to make restoring people’s lives his ministry.

“In the more than two decades that I have done this I can tell you that Bibles don’t burn. They may get crisp around the edges, but they don’t burn.”

Mammoth is a faith-based company that, on behalf of Brotherhood Mutual, is tasked with drying out and mitigating the Coshocton Grace UMC building to get it construction-ready so that Bailfish Services can come in, do an estimate, and start doing the work of putting the building back together.

“The sanctuary is in bad shape and the gymnasium is in bad shape. The school side of the building is really just water and smoke damage. I think that’s all going to be in great shape after we dry it out and Bailfish puts it back together,” Slusher said.

Prior to the May 22 service, the congregation gathered in the parking lot of Canal Lewisville UMC sharing stories and photos of the fire as well as their hopes of what might be salvaged from the burned-out sanctuary of their home church, Coshocton Grace UMC. After walking into Canal Lewisville as one, the congregation shared memories during the service of how they had been moved by God during their time in the Coshocton Grace building. As a sign of hope during the service in the congregation’s temporary home away from home, Quillen held up the collection plate that would be used to receive the morning offering. It had been found under ash in the Coshocton Grace UMC building on Friday.

The Connection of The United Methodist Church

“We’ve had lots of local churches reach out and churches from other districts and other conferences across The United Methodist Church have reached out since they’ve heard about the fire,” Brown said.

“With joy and sorrow, I came here today to worship with the resilient people of Coshocton Grace UMC following the devastating fire,” shared the Rev. Ed Fashbaugh. “Being a former superintendent of this Three Rivers District, I know members of this congregation and wanted them to know I stand with them. However, as the executive director of Connectional Ministries for our East Ohio Conference, I want the people of Grace UMC to know that the people of East Ohio stand with them.”

Rev. Laura White, superintendent of the Southern Hills District, and the Rev. Nestor Nazario, superintendent of the Mid-Ohio District brought the prayers and well wishes of the clergy and laity of their respective districts to share with the congregation of Coshocton Grace UMC.

Bishop Tracy S. Malone was unable to be at the worship service because she had a leadership role in United Women in Faith Assembly 2022 in Orlando, Florida but she asked Superintendent Brown to read to the congregation this message from her:

“Dear beloved of God … Pastor Quillen and the members of Grace United Methodist Church, I greet you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ … our comforter, our healer, our hope. It grieves my heart to learn that your church home, Grace United Methodist Church, has been destroyed by a fire. I know that this tragic loss has impacted you, and so many others in the community, in ways that cannot be fully expressed or comprehended … especially as you think about the cherished memories and significant life events that have taken place in your church home over the many years.

“As you gather for worship this morning, I want you to know that I am with you in spirit and am holding each of you in my heart … asking God to comfort you and to bless you … to give you strength and a renewed hope. I encourage you to remember that YOU are the CHURCH, the body of Christ, loved, called, and sent to share the love, the grace, and the Good News of Jesus Christ … to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

“Remember, that your memories will never be lost because they are yours to hold … they have no walls or structures … you keep them in your hearts … you share them with each other … they are a gift to behold. Remember, you are a faith community … strong in the Lord … a church family … and families stick together, pray together, and move forward in faith together.

“And best and most of all, remember the promises of God:

  • ‘The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.’ (Deuteronomy 31:8) 
  • ‘But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.’ (Isaiah 40:31) 

“And so, beloved of God: Grieve. Pray. And take time to remember. Commit to each other, commit to rebuild and commit to embrace your future, together. Walk together in faith, in love and with a steadfast hope. Our God is faithful and trustworthy, always abounding in grace and mercy and will give you a future with hope! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! Amen!”

Ministering to Others in New Ways

Nancy Zerbe, who like her sister Gloria Drobnack was married at Coshocton Grace UMC, shared that when the church was on fire she thought about their dad, George Stalder, who had done a lot of maintenance at the church when he was alive.

“Dad would have said, ‘nobody was hurt, the congregation is still there, the church is a building,’” she offered.

Quillen told the congregation during Sunday’s service, “When I close my eyes and think of the church I see your faces, I don’t see the building. Your memories are important, and as the bishop said they will never go away, and you can hold onto them. But from today forward we begin making new memories and whatever happened on Friday, May 20, 2022, that has to be our turning point for who Grace is.”

Before closing the service with the congregation singing “We Are the Church,” Quillen offered this prayer:

“Holy Lord, we can only imagine the plans that you have for us as we walk through this time of fire and destruction. Lord, we know that you are with us. We see you in the picture of your Son that stood and survived flame and water. We see you in butterflies that bring the message of hope during a time of ash and darkness. The light of your love pours over all of your children and especially right now Lord may your light pour over Grace. May you bathe us in healing warmth and hope. As we do every Sunday, we have gathered today to celebrate the gift of Jesus Christ and we remember the words that he spoke to his disciples to let them know that they would never be alone. He told them, ‘do not let your hearts be troubled, do not be afraid.’ How many times are we troubled and fearful, Lord? How many times do we feel hopeless in the face of an uncertain future? Help us to place our trust in you and in your Son. Open our hearts to see the wonder of your glory and release us from our anger, our pain, our loss, our mourning, our despair. Bring us to the realization that in your love we may find peace and joy and help us to look to the future, a new time, a new place, a new ministry. Amen.”

*Rick Wolcott is executive director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.