Fire engulfs century-old church in Philadelphia

Dake Kang
Associated Press

Philadelphia — A massive fire that engulfed a century-old west Philadelphia gothic church was brought under control in about two hours Monday with no injuries reported.

The fire was reported just before 9 a.m. at a Presbyterian church in the Overbrook neighborhood. Firefighters were on the scene in two minutes. The blaze reached four alarms.

Sherry Neal-Browne, a congregant at the church who lives a block away, heard commotion and came outside to see flames shooting from the church’s front door and side windows, and heavy black smoke pouring from the roof.

“It’s engulfed; it’s burning down right before our very eyes. It’s just very hard to see,” Neal-Browne said. “My son is 18 years old, he went to kindergarten there — he’s in college now. So it’s been a part of our life for at least 19 years — and to see it burn is tragic.”

The church was home to a preschool, afterschool programs and a daycare center.

Firefighters found one person on the second floor who didn’t know about the fire and got that person out safely. No medical assistance was required.

Fire department officials said the blaze apparently started in the basement. Fire crews had to retreat after discovering water pressure wasn’t high enough to fight the flames. They ordered an evacuation and focused on protecting houses behind the church from after ensuring nobody was left in the building.

Four other congregations used the church in addition to the Presbyterians.

Pastor Pamela K. Williams of the Ark of Refuge Tabernacle, an LGBTQ oriented congregation, was tending to her son’s nosebleed at home when she got six calls telling her the church was on fire.

“We lost everything,” Williams said. “I just finished celebrating 35 years in the ministry yesterday with my church, and this on the heels of that breaks my heart.”

She said it’s been a struggle for her LGBTQ congregants to gain acceptance within mainstream Christianity. Williams’ congregation was based at a motor lodge before moving to the church five years ago.

“This is a devastating setback. We have to find a place to workshop,” Williams said.

The flames were declared under control just after 11 a.m., with 121 firefighters contributing to the effort. The fire continued to burn inside the building, and fire department officials said they will be fighting hot spots for another few days.

“It’s an old gothic church, deep-seated fire — we’re going to be here for some time,” said Philadelphia Deputy Fire Commissioner Jesse Wilson.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.