In Northern California and at Virginia Seminary, mission and ministry go on after devastating fires

October 24, 2010

Virginia Theological Seminary and the Diocese of Northern California, hit by devastating fires last week, on Oct. 25 grappled with the lengthy process of moving forward.

In Alexandria, the VTS faculty and students were off-campus as the "seminary community began its corporate worship at Immanuel Episcopal Church-on-the-Hill" three days after a fire devastated the school's historic wooden chapel, according to a note posted on the school's Facebook Tribute Page.

Although the VTS wooden chapel, built in 1881, was heavily damaged in the Oct. 22 fire, "some stained glass windows appear to have survived," according to an email circulated Oct. 25 to alumni and friends by the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, VTS dean.

While contemplating rebuilding, Markham added that: "In due course, you will hear about the semi-permanent measures we will put in place to guarantee the centrality of worship in our common life.

"Life goes on, but we are grieving on the Holy Hill. Life is far from normal and the future is not totally focused. It is too early to talk about rebuilding or a new chapel. VTS has always been about memories, ministry and mission in the name of Jesus," he added. "This remains the case today—and our story for the future."

The cause of the fire remains under investigation by the department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which typically investigates church fires in the nation, he said.

An online gallery of photos of the fire and the damaged chapel is here.

Carrying on in Northern California

Some 2,700 miles westward, in mid-town Sacramento, the River City Food Bank, a ministry of the Diocese of Northern California, resumed food and other aid to the local hungry from temporary offices across the street from its charred headquarters.

The diocesan headquarters, including the office of the bishop also sustained heavy fire, smoke and water damage, according to communications director Keri Lopez.

The diocese's centennial convention, planned for Nov. 11-13 and themed "Remember, Rejoice and Renew," will proceed as planned, Lopez said. But, she added, after the Oct. 21 fire that destroyed two buildings, "we could add 'rebuild' in there now, too."

The Rev. Canon Britt Olson, diocesan canon to the ordinary, said that temporary office space "has been procured for our office manager, accounting, administration and finance functions so they may do essential tasks."

In the interim, other staff, including communications, youth and young adult ministries as well as Bishop Barry Beisner, will work remotely, communicate electronically and gather for periodic staff meetings.

"We won't be returning to the building for at least a year and even then we're unsure if we'll rebuild at this location or elsewhere," Olson added.

The cause of the Oct. 21 fire is still under investigation. A second fire the same day, rekindled by smoking ash, resulted in additional smoke, water and physical damage to the buildings. The financial losses have yet to be calculated.

The building, which housed the food bank "was a total loss, including all of its contents, about 8,000 pounds of food," Olson said. Both were former residences that had been converted to office space.

The second building, which housed the bishop's offices, had recently been remodeled, she added. "All the oil paintings of former bishops had been displayed in the conference room … they were all lost," along with books, icons and other furnishings, she said.

"It's just a real loss. Obviously, it's just stuff, but there was a lot of historical value there that can never be recovered," she said.

But she added that the fire, while devastating, "will not hold us back from our mission. The bishop said there is an opportunity here for new ways of doing ministry, and as sad and as difficult as it is, it propels us forward."

Bishop Beisner could not be reached for comment Oct. 25.

Olson said the food bank's temporary location "is very temporary. They don't have electricity, running water or bathrooms, but they are receiving donations."

Nevertheless, the food bank was back in business as of Oct. 25. "Hungry people are coming by, some in wheelchairs, needing food," Olson said. "It's not like you can send them five miles away to get food. We're trying to be functional. Today we distributed some food."

She said the response from the larger community has been wonderful "and we are grateful that no one was injured in any way. We also want people to know that we look at this as an opportunity to move forward with hope, with Christian hope that new life comes out of the midst of dark and difficult times."

She added: "This is a real opportunity to engage our mission even more—we're about making disciples, raising up saints and transforming communities for Christ."