By Lora Scripps
Only an hour before a cold, heavy rain hit Limestone County Monday, Cherry Grove Baptist Church Pastor Chris Pirtle and church members watched smoke billow from the charred remains of their church building. The roof lay across debris in a scene that could be described as surreal.
The church, located at the corner of Cherry Grove Road and Thacker Street in western Limestone County, caught fire at about 4:44 a.m. Monday.
Pirtle said he arrived at 5 a.m. to find the church in flames.
Goodsprings, Pleasant Grove and Owens volunteer fire departments and the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department responded to the scene. No injuries were reported.
The church, which was established in 1902, has about 50 members ranging in age from late-80s to infants. The original church building no longer stands. However, Pirtle said additions were added to the building around the 1930s or 1940s and the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s by at least four generations of church members — many from the same families.
Hazel Patterson, who said she has been attending the church for 83 years, was noticeably shaken when she saw what was left. She said her parents had poured years of labor and love into the church and that she had attended school in the building as a child. “It won’t be the same,” she said as she looked at the destruction. Pirtle embraced Patterson and assured her that although the building won’t ever be the same, the church would.
“We will be fine,” Pirtle said. “I hate it for folks who have been here so long. I hate we lost the building, but the church is fine.”
He had already arranged for members to meet Monday night at a deacon’s home and said they would continue to meet on Wednesdays and Sundays as usual.
Before the smoke was gone, members of six or seven churches had already offered facilities for Cherry Grove Baptist’s use, according to Pirtle. “We will pray about it,” he said, adding the church would most likely take one of the offers until they get on their feet. He added the church had “some insurance.”
Agents with the Alabama Fire Marshal’s Office and the Alabama Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were investigating the cause of the blaze by about 10 a.m. Monday. Deputy State Fire Marshal Jimmy Collier told The News Courier they investigate anytime there is a church fire in case it could be a criminal event. “Something in the building got to a combustible temperature and fired off,” he said when asked about what caused the fire.
Collier said officials would use a systematic approach while investigating and would start with the least burnt areas and continue to the most the burnt areas examining layer by layer.
He said the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department would be asked to assist in the investigation, adding the biggest hurdle would be removing the roof.
According to Collier, a neighbor had taken a video and pictures that investigators would review. “That will help a lot,” he said.
Pirtle said the church is thankful for the local departments and community who have already reached out to help.
By Monday evening, little remained in a place that held more than 100 years of services. Bibles, church records, hymnals and more were destroyed as well as pews — each considered special because someone in the church had purchased them through the years.
“No one was hurt.” Pirtle said. “God blessed us. We will rebuild.”
To contact Pirtle or members of the congregation, send email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.