Sedalia said goodbye to its second oldest church and a part of its history early Thursday morning when the First United Methodist Church, located at Fourth Street and Osage Avenue, built in 1888, was destroyed by fire.
Rhonda Chalfant, a 35-year member and Sunday school teacher at the church, said by phone Thursday morning that the UMC was the second oldest church in Sedalia.
“The congregation was established in the 1860s,” Chalfant, who is also a historian, said. “The first building was on Ohio Street. The current building, the one that’s burned, was built in 1888. It’s the second oldest church building in Sedalia. It was built in the Romanesque style and has been a place of worship since 1888.”
In 2013, the church celebrated their 125 anniversary.
“They had recently repainted the decorative painting along the alcove of the ceiling,” Chalfant said. “It was there originally and it had been painted over. There was a bequest that enabled the church to recreate that, and it was beautiful.”
Chalfant added that the loss is devastating.
“I’m both sad and sick,” she said. “With God’s help we will carry on, that’s about all we can do.”
Rebecca Imhauser, a member of the First Baptist Church and a local historian, said the loss from a personal standpoint is “heartbreaking.”
“It is a church that houses many memories, where lives were changed, where lives were started,” she noted.
It was a also place for “final goodbyes” in the community. She added that the last funeral she attended at FUMC was for Helen Cecil, 89, widow of Gerald Cecil, a longtime Sedalia business owner.
“A church is a different kind of building loss than the other building losses and fires we’ve had downtown,” Imhauser said. “The memories are more sacred. The other piece of that, is the church is more than the building.
“This is a wonderful, caring congregation, an asset to the city and to the town,” she added. “I can’t imagine the feelings and the memories that they are going through. It was a beautiful historic structure, but thankfully there’s more than history involved in a church building. It’s still a living community and their faith will sustain them. It’s an unconscionable sense of loss, but yet it’s also an awareness of we are so much more than the bricks and mortar.”
During the 125th anniversary celebration, member Alice Fairfax told the Democrat about her grandparents, Sherman and Carrie Williams, and her grandmother’s family, the Demands, who attended the church. Fairfax’s father Walter Rissler taught Sunday school and her mother Lodelle Rissler was involved with the United Methodist Women.
Ironically this isn’t the first tragedy for the church involving fire. Another tragedy, involving loss of life, was reported on the front page of the Democrat April 12, 1934. Fairfax’s family was there at the time.
“In 1934, she was pregnant with me and the church had a pretty good-sized debt,” Fairfax said of her mother. “So, the ladies went out to the Missouri (Railroad) shops and they fixed up steam tables for (the workers). The ladies fixed a meal for the railroad workers, but the steam tables blew up and we lost some women.”
Her mother was spared because she didn’t help the women that day, but her grandmother sustained an injury that caused a permanent limp.
Pastor Jim Downing said nine women were lost that day and 30 injured. The framed plaque that hung in the church’s vestibule in memory of the women is now lost to the fire as well. Although Downing said in 2013 a line of Bradford pear trees are planted at their sister church, the Celebration Center, located at 1701 W. 32nd St., in memory of the women.
“There are nine trees and each tree is planted 30 feet apart to commemorate, to remember the individuals who gave up their lives during that time,” he said.
The historic stained glass windows are also a loss.
Downing said in 2013 the windows were second and third generation and that one of the church’s earliest pulpits was still in use in a classroom.
Due to the unsound structure of the building, businesses in the area near the church were closed Thursday.
Fritz and Luper LLC, Attorneys at Law Office Manager Gail Fritz said they were asked to close Thursday due to the fire and the subsequent debris on the road. The office is located at 200 W. Fourth St.
ABC Advertising Building Owner Martin Crabtree also opted to close his business, located at 400 S. Osage Ave., Thursday. He planned to be open Friday.
“It’s definitely a bad thing,” he added.
US Bank employees, 116 W. Fourth St., posted yellow signs Thursday on their doors telling customers they would be closed for the day. Bank Manager Marsha Scheese said they hoped to open Friday.
“We’re closing because (the church is) not structurally sound,” she said. “They are hoping to get the (church structure) down (Thursday). It will be when (the Sedalia Police Department) tells us it’s safe. They are waiting on the (fire) inspector and they are hoping to get the building down. That would allow us to open back up.”
Scheese, who is on the Sedalia Downtown Development Inc. board, said she was devastated by the loss of the church.
“I have a passion for downtown,” she added. “I’ve been in this area all my life. It is very sad.”
The Sedalia Water Department, next door to the church, was open Thursday morning until noon. Department Manager Charlie Brosch said they were calling in a structural engineer to check the Water Department’s west wall Thursday afternoon.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.