Ten-year-old Corrine Yoder-Mulkey was pretty excited about the new building her church, Eudora United Methodist, had built and opened in February.
“The new one was awesome,” Corrine says.
But the day after she received her first Bible at the church, Corrine’s excitement turned to grief as she saw fire trucks at the new building while riding the bus home from school.
“I started crying,” Corrine says, as she learned of the fire that would prevent the church from celebrating their first Christmas in the new building.
But Corrine, like other church members, is looking toward the future while realizing that her congregation is far more than the building where she worships.
The memory of the fire is etched firmly in the Rev. Michael Tomson-DeGreeff’s memory. He easily recalls the exact time of the fire, 2:55 p.m. Nov. 24, as well as the number of Sundays the church spent waiting for the completion of the new building after construction started: 77.
“Not that I’m counting,” says Tomson-DeGreeff, as he speaks about the 10 years it took to plan and raise money for the new building located in southwest Eudora, right off Kansas Highway 10.
No one was injured in the fire, which originated in the sanctuary. The Kansas State Fire Marshal’s office classified the fire as accidental while listing the cause of the fire as unknown.
The fire ruined almost everything in the sanctuary, and the rest of the church suffered smoke damage.
John Meyers, who was one of many church members who helped with the construction of the new building, has been encouraged by how the congregation has responded in the aftermath of the fire.
“It was difficult seeing what happened,” he says. “But I think they’ve done real well.”
Carol Dickson, who has been attending the church for four years, says the loss was especially tough because the church members put a lot of “sweat equity” into the construction of the new building. But the fire hasn’t hurt attendance, and Dickson looks to the future.
“There’s always next year,” she says.
And while he admits the fire has been difficult for the congregation, Tomson-DeGreeff says he is proud of how the church and the community have responded.
“We kept this going,” says Tomson-DeGreeff. “The outpouring (of support) has been amazing. A real blessing.”
Tomson-DeGreeff says he has received supportive letters from churches across the state and the country. Local churches have pitched in and provided the church with space to hold their services, allowing the church to continue their ministry uninterrupted.
“The church would be stuck without the generosity of the other area churches,” says music director Gary Keller, who likens the church response to the fire as a “small phoenix rising.”
The church was able to find a temporary location to hold services at the Warren-McElwain Mortuary’s Eudora chapel, which is a familiar place for church members.
The chapel is where the church held services for the 18 months while the new building was being built.
“It’s a warm and inviting place,” says Barbara Kruger, who has been a member of the church for 14 years.
It’s been a tough adjustment, though, as church members struggle accepting the fire.
“It was classic denial — ‘no, that didn’t happen here,’” says Amye Scott, another longtime member.
The church, which has about 220 members, will hold its Christmas services at the temporary location. But church members look forward to moving back into the new building once it’s repaired.
“You just make the best of it and move on,” says Kruger. “You have to be optimistic. ... There’s always next year.”
It’s unclear when the work on the church will be completed, says Tomson-DeGreef, but he’s been told the church should be ready to move back into the building in two to six months.
Tomson-DeGreeff says the experience has provided him with “one more reminder” that his ministry is about the worship and not about where the worshipping takes place.
It’s an aspect of the incident not lost on one of the church’s younger members.
“It’s not just the church,” Corrine says. “It’s the people who are in it that matters.”
— Shaun Hittle is a journalism graduate student at Kansas University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.