Since 1976, Elois Pate, 88, has attended church at the Greater Bible Way Temple in the Parkside section of West Philadelphia.
Sunday would be no different.
“The Lord is still in the same place, in us,” said Pate, sitting in a chair on the sidewalk outside her church, which fire severely damaged last week.
More than 100 parishioners joined her, taking seats in the makeshift worship area set up in the middle of a side street, fittingly named Bible Way. The charred roof of the 115-year-old stone church loomed behind them, a strong smell of smoke still lingering for those who got close enough to it.
Bishop Benjamin F. Peterson Jr., senior pastor, was undeterred.
“I know the temple is in ruin, but we still got our hope,” he intoned during the hours-long service outside the church, located on North 52nd Street. “I’m not going to cancel my praise!”
Fire tore through the church’s steeple on Tuesday afternoon. As word of the blaze spread that afternoon, parishioners, including Deborah Mitchell, 44, rushed to the site to pray. She stayed until about 9 that evening, saddened but never wavering in her faith.
“I believe God has a plan,” Mitchell, a certified nursing assistant, said before the service began on Sunday, “to do bigger and better things than before.”
The cause of the three-alarm fire has been ruled accidental, said Kathy Matheson, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Fire Department. Specifically, it was ignited by a roofer’s torch, she said. That occurred during repair work, Peterson said.
Peterson estimated that damage amounted to about $6 million but said he would know more when an engineer’s report was completed. The church has begun raising funds to make the repairs, he said, including a GoFundMe campaign. A benefit is being planned for Sept. 23, with details to come, Peterson said.
He hopes to raise enough to install a new roof by Christmas and redo the interior of the church by his birthday, May 1, Peterson said.
In the meantime, services will be held in a tent on a triangular grassy lot across from the church starting next week, he said. Yet he wasn’t willing to let even one Sunday pass without holding a service.
“We declared we weren’t going in and hiding,” Peterson said. “We’re going to come out and reach out for souls to be saved.”
So out in the street, on Bible Way, the parishioners hugged each other, sang, prayed, and rejoiced.
“We’ll make it through,” said Patricia Smith, 69, a church member for about 20 years.
The church, the pastor said, has 300 to 500 parishioners and a busy schedule, performing about 50 weddings a year and dozens of funerals. Greater Bible Way acquired the former St. Gregory’s Roman Catholic Church 36 years ago, he said.
Peterson vowed to emerge from the fire even stronger, with more equipment and resources.