The night the Baptist Church burned

Published 5:43 pm Tuesday, February 26, 2019

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A few events and the stories they generated over the years stand out in my mind today, but none more vividly than the fire that destroyed the old Smithfield Baptist Church on a bitter cold night 30 years ago.

We were living on Wilson Road, about a block away from the town siren that, back in those days, alerted those fire fighters east of the Cypress to a fire. On Friday night, Jan. 12, 1973, the siren sounded and it’s wail seemed more prolonged than usual. With no scanner at home, I phoned the dispatcher to see what was burning. “The Baptist Church” she said cryptically, then hung up.

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Smoke was pouring from the high Victorian building and fire fighters were already inside the building when I began shooting the first of many rolls of film that night, documenting what would be one of the three or four worst fires in the town’s history.

The mental images of that night have remained clear for three decades. During the night, members of the county’s largest congregation came as individuals and families to stand a quiet and hopeless vigil as flames burst from the ventilation cap on the tall sanctuary roof, erupting like a volcano and signaling the futility of efforts to stop the destruction.

I violated my journalistic instincts that night and didn’t photograph close up the knots of members. Their stricken looks were surely the stuff of good news photography, but it was too much like watching family members standing by the bedside of a dying loved one, and I just couldn’t invade their privacy.

So I focused instead on the fire and the fire fighters, and that, I suppose, was sufficient to tell the story, for there was plenty of emotion there. Fire fighters entered the building repeatedly, determined to stop the blaze. Within a few hours, though, they were bone tired, cold, and though still resolute in dousing the remaining fire, they had the look of defeat.

It quickly became evident to fire fighters and investigators that the Baptist Church had fallen victim to arsonists who had lit numerous separate fires throughout the building. (No one was ever charged, but I’ve often wondered what those responsible for the fire have thought about their own actions that night in the years since.)

I stayed with the story in the following weeks, particularly that Sunday as the congregation met for Sunday worship at the old Smithfield High School auditorium. It was an emotional, tearful event, but one marked by a level of courage and determination that you only find in times of crisis.

One of my most vivid memories is of the Rev. Warren Taylor, who had by then been pastor of the church for more than two decades. The night of the fire, it seemed to me that he aged dramatically. Standing in his old overcoat and brimmed hat, he did what he could to comfort church members, but it was clear that he was hurting as badly as anyone. You wanted to just walk over and hug the man, as many church members did.

But on that Sunday morning, he was magnificent. It was alright to grieve, he told his flock, but at the height of their grief, he challenged them to move forward.

“You will disappoint me — and you haven’t often” he told his congregation that morning, “if you don’t begin again and press on.”

They didn’t disappoint him — or themselves. The members of that church left the old auditorium that day with their heads high, determined not just to rebuild, but to use the catastrophe as a call to build for the future, to position themselves to better serve and grow with this community.

And to their everlasting credit, they have done both. Today, Smithfield Baptist is a thriving church headquartered in Red Point Heights. Beside the church stands a small gazebo. It houses the bell that tolled the congregation to church services at the former Church Street location, a reminder to cherish the past even as we embrace the future.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is a repeat, first published in January 2003.