Church members express disbelief following the fire at College Hill Presbyterian Church – The Oxford Eagle

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Church members express disbelief following the fire at College Hill Presbyterian Church

Posted at 12:35 p.m. on Sunday, August 14, 2022

Members of the College Hill Presbyterian Church expressed shock and disbelief following a fire that destroyed the majority of the historic church in Mississippi on Saturday night.

The church, located at 339 Co Rd 102, burned for more than three hours, according to reports. Crews from the Lafayette County Fire Department and the Oxford Fire Department responded to the scene to battle the engulfing flames.

Founded in 1835, College Hill Presbyterian was built in 1844 and is said to be the oldest Presbyterian structure in northern Mississippi and the oldest church of any denomination in the Oxford area. The pulpit, pews, pew doors, and stained glass were the original furnishings and features of the centuries-old structure.

Now the church is hollowed out – missing the pulpit, pews, pew doors, stained glass windows and many other historical artifacts – with only the original brick exterior and large white columns standing. Church members gathered outside the church on Sunday morning to view the damage caused by the fire.

“I’m just in disbelief,” said College Hill Presbyterian Church elder Casey Rodgers. “People there have been worshiping the Lord for over 170 years if I’m not mistaken. I’m just in disbelief that it burned.

CHPC Acting Pastor Clint Wilcke calls the fire a “great tragedy.” Wilcke served as youth pastor for College Hill Presbyterian in 1991 and 1992 and married into the church 29 years ago, giving him a deep connection to the church.

“I’m so surprised and kind of shocked,” Wilcke said. “I really have no idea how to deal with the loss of this. I served here and the long term history of the church is simply mind boggling.

CHPC daycare coordinator Debra Patterson was one of the first people to be notified of the fire.

“Someone called me and said they heard there was a fire,” she said. “And I lived just down the road, so I came here last night and it was all blocked off. There were fire trucks everywhere. I had stopped across the street by the little store, just looking to see what was going on.

Onlookers noted that the fire had started at the back of the church.

“At first we thought it was right out the back,” Patterson said, “but then I could see the flames coming up inside the windows so I knew it was outside. interior of the church.

The fire in the church dealt a severe blow to those connected with the building. College Hill Presbyterian was more than just a church for the community, according to Patterson.

“You will be surprised by the people who just come here,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Sometimes they sit outside or inside. The doors are never locked, so you can always come in and pray. It is truly a sanctuary. I always say to the Lord, it’s for me, it’s the most peaceful place, but it’s his presence that makes it so special. It’s just very dear to my heart.

Generations of families attended College Hill Presbyterian and continued to worship there. Patterson’s youngest sister, Melody Cole, and her daughter Chloe have both attended church since birth and Chloe’s son was brought to the church nursery last week.

“I don’t think I’ve really recorded it yet,” Chloe said.

“It’s not just a building. It’s not,” Melody said. “Our whole family is here. Our father is buried in the cemetery and our great-aunt, who was 102 when she died, and she was able to hold [Chloe] when she was a baby. So many people have come and gone that we have seen and people that we were friends with that we grew up here and have gone elsewhere. It’s just a lot of history.

Although most of the story was gone, firefighters managed to salvage a few pieces of it before it was lost forever to the church. Notably, the exterior of the church and the pulpit survived the fire.

“The old columns have survived, inside and out, the brick walls have survived and some of the old doors,” Patterson said. “It’s quite encouraging, I think. So there is hope.

Additionally, an LCFD firefighter rescued the Bible from the church pulpit before it burned.

“So many pastors in the 1800s had written in this Bible and preached from this Bible,” Rodgers said. “It was really good that one of the firefighters picked it up and brought it to us. There is a lot of history that has been lost, so we are grateful that it was able to be saved.

Despite the tragedy, College Hill Presbyterian Church will continue to hold worship services in the Fellowship Hall located just off the main building.

“We’re grateful for the fellowship hall,” Rodgers said. “It will take us some time to process this, but we will continue to worship and serve. And our people are just amazing. There really is a family spirit here at College Hill. It does not change. The building is obviously dear to our hearts, but it’s the people and it’s the community and fellowship that we have around one mission that we have which is to worship the Lord.

The LCFD continues to investigate the fire.

County Fire Chief Wes Anderson said a dispatch call indicated the fire started in the back of the church, but officials don’t know the cause.

“It’s currently an ongoing investigation,” Anderson said.

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