SYRACUSE, Neb. — There have been a lot of tears in the week since the 102-year-old United Methodist Church in Syracuse burned. But Sunday — at the first service since that tragedy — there were hugs, smiles and lots of laughter.
“All I do is cry, it seems like,” said Frances Wirth, who has been a member of the congregation for nearly 60 years. “Today has been wonderful. I haven't seen this many people in church in a long, long time. It was just great.”
More than 100 people, including several visitors from other churches, attended the hourlong service held at A.J.'s Coffee House in downtown Syracuse.
Church trustee Mike Antes said he was especially heartened to see Mayor Tomas Ortiz and other city officials.
“It's actually very overwhelming to see the support we have gotten from the community,” Antes said. “It's probably done more for us than anything could have.”
Former trustee Terry Zimmers ran out of weekly bulletins while greeting people at the door.
She also handed out a “Church Fire Survival Kit” that held: a penny, “to help make 'cents' of things”; a cotton ball, “to cushion the rough times”; a paper clip, “to help hold things together”; and a lollipop, because “together we can lick anything.”
The Nebraska Fire Marshal's Office has not determined a cause of the fire but has ruled out foul play. The congregation will meet at the United Methodist Church of Unadilla each of the next three weeks before moving into a vacant storefront in Syracuse until a new church is built.
“We might just hang a neon sign in the window that says 'Jesus Saves,' ” the Rev. Gary Ganger joked while addressing his flock. “We're orphans, but we have each other.”
Ganger, who serves as pastor of the churches in Unadilla and Syracuse, took the helm just six months ago. The McCook, Neb., native said encouragement has poured in from churches all across Kansas and Nebraska.
Last Monday, the morning after the fire, Ganger said he was surprised by two friends who showed up to do whatever they could to help. The men wound up guarding the front and back doors of the parsonage to keep out the curious while Ganger dealt with critical matters.
“I didn't know these two men were coming, but I was glad they did,” Ganger said. “It's in times of stress like these that we have to help each other.”
At one point in Sunday's service — when members thank God for their blessings — one person offered praise that no one was injured in the fire, which was discovered by Boy Scout leaders arriving for an evening meeting. Another member noted that a wooden carving of the Lord's Prayer had been saved from the ashes.
Ganger said the carving, titled “Our Father's Prayer,” is the work of the late Arthur Whitehead, a member who presented it to United Methodist Church in 1997. A cross carved by Whitehead also was rescued.
“These are precious artifacts that we will carry to our storefront church and on to whatever comes next,” Ganger said. “We are in a difficult situation that we just have to turn around and get rolling down the road. We are already seeing signs of that happening.”
Antes said the first step is to demolish the portions of the brick walls that still are standing. That could begin as soon as today, he said. The educational wing of the church, built in 1962, had smoke and water damage but is otherwise intact, he said.
Church members are eager to rebuild, but whether the church will rise on the same ground hasn't been determined.
“Part of my job is going to be holding back the trustees and the other members from moving ahead too quickly,” Ganger said. “We want something that will last not just for a few years but for 50 years and more.”
Becky Neeman, a 40-year member, said Ganger and the trustees have demonstrated great leadership since the fire. Rebuilding will happen in time, she said, but the congregation members will stick together wherever they worship.
“We are the church,” she said. “And we will always be the church.”