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Four months after fire gutted the 88-year-old St. Elmo United Methodist Church building, the congregation still finds itself without a home.

As church leaders plan to rebuild, members are attending services in a borrowed sanctuary, holding at least one Sunday school class at a church member's home. The main phone line for the congregation is a cell phone carried by the church secretary.

But the news isn't all negative.

"I think we've grown as a church; our Sunday school attendance is up, church attendance is doing well, money is fine," said the Rev. Mark Dowell, the church pastor. "But it's still very hard. ... 'Displaced' is the perfect word. We are kind of orphaned."

On Aug. 23, a two-alarm fire heavily damaged the building. Six days later, investigators with the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Chattanooga Fire Department determined the blaze was caused by old, malfunctioning wiring in the church's attic.

The red brick walls of the church's sanctuary, its white-trimmed cathedral windows and many of its stained-glass windows remain, but a portion of the roof above where the fire started caved in.

The building was insured for $3.65 million, Mr. Dowell said, and the 126-year-old congregation since has been reimbursed that full amount.

But rebuilding is a process that could take at least two years, and even the pastor admits things won't be the same for many members.

"I hope we can be into a new building at Christmas in two years," Mr. Dowell said. "It's not the same for our long-term members. They are broken-hearted and grieving over the loss."

Little remains of the church sanctuary's historic woodwork. Mr. Dowell thinks three of the dark cherry wood pews were salvaged, but iconic items such as a pulpit cross were lost. He hopes the front brick façade of the church can be saved, but the rest of the building will be torn down soon.

The congregation's nine-foot piano and large pipe organ also were destroyed by the fire. The loss was particularly sad for church pianist and organist Scott Medley.

"I think we had the finest instruments in all of Chattanooga, so that's particularly tough," Mr. Medley said. "But as a congregation, we've gotten closer in a lot of ways. ... Our members are in it for the long haul."

"They're doing well, their spirits are high and they're looking forward to rebuilding," said the Rev. Fred Dearing, who supervises area churches in the denomination.

MEMBERS AND HISTORY

Before the fire, the church drew about 100 worshipers each Sunday. Though it had seen recent growth, the "glue" of the congregation was worshipers who were in their 70s and had attended for decades, Mr. Dowell said. Those members, who themselves may have been christened there and worshipped with their own children, particularly were attached to the building.

"I think many of our members' feelings of loss will resurface during the demolition," he said. "But after that, we hope there is some excitement about the future."

Improvements will include a modern classroom area and a gymnasium, he said. The church had a 1950s-era addition that Rev. Dowell said was outdated and needed renovations anyway.

"But the sanctuary just felt like church," he said. "It made you somehow feel closer to God."

He is in talks with architects on how best to move forward. The goal is to rebuild without borrowing any money. If saving the front portion of the church is too expensive, St. Elmo United may rebuild with a completely new structure, Mr. Dowell said.

Since the property is part of the St. Elmo Historic District, with guidelines set by the Chattanooga Historic Zoning Commission, church leaders also are talking to city officials about their plans, he said.

Tough rules apply

Because St. Elmo is a historic district, according to the city's 137-page guidelines, "an additional approval beyond the normal building permit is required for most exterior changes in the neighborhood."

Mr. Dowell said the church is in discussions with the zoning commission.

The guidelines further state that approval must be given by the Historic Zoning Commission for "any construction, alteration, demolition or removal" within St. Elmo that normally requires a building or demolition permit.

As part of the St. Elmo Historic District, the church also is on the National Register of Historic Places. But Claudette Stager of the Tennessee Historical Commission said that designation doesn't carry any demolition or renovation restrictions.

"We like to see that, if a building cannot be rebuilt, we certainly hope that whatever is new is rebuilt in the character of the historic district," she said.

The congregation itself is meeting for worship weekly at St. Elmo Seventh-day Adventist Church, where the Methodist congregation first built in 1887. Its temporary office is at Thankful Memorial Episcopal Church, also in St. Elmo.

The fire hasn't slowed the Methodist church's activities, according to information on the church's Web site. On Sunday, for instance, members had a churchwide meal at the Bethlehem Center and later went caroling in the St. Elmo neighborhood. The congregation also met Thursday for an Christmas Eve candlelight service.

"Our members may still grieve that loss, but they are dedicated, they are working hard ... they know there is a bigger purpose," Mr. Dowell said. "We won't be able to recreate the sanctuary, but the rest of the building will be so much better."

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