On January 3, 2018, a steeple fire did major damage to Monumental UMC in Portsmouth, Virginia. Monumental UMC began in 1772, changed locations a few times, and settled on Dinwiddie Street in Portsmouth in the 1830’s.
The church was having some weatherproofing done on the steeple from hurricane damage. The workers were using propane torches to seal the steeple. Apparently, there were some hot sparks that caused the fire. Darlene Amon, a longtime member of Monumental UMC was on the scene and overheard a conversation between a worker and the Portsmouth Fire Chief. He said, “I thought it was out! I’m so sorry, so sorry. I thought it was out!” He was one of the workers who were upset and felt responsible for the fire. They were distraught and several of the Monumental UMC members were standing in a circle in the parking lot praying when they heard them. They invited the workers into their circle and prayed with them. In the midst of this tragedy, these church members reached out to these distraught workers and put their arms around them.
There was a silver lining in this devastation according to Robert Scott, a lifelong member. A century old Bible survived the damage. Connie McCook, a Monumental UMC member asked a firefighter if they could retrieve the Bible and told the man where it was in the sanctuary. He did retrieve it and brought out the cross and the candlesticks. The Bible is the same one that survived the 1864 fire in the sanctuary. Today, it is on display in the Fellowship Hall, where the congregation is worshipping now.
The next day, when they were able to get into the sanctuary and look into the belfry, they saw names scratched into the exposed walls. One was dated 1854, a testament to the fact that at least that wall had survived the 1864 fire. Joyce Thacker said this was a wonderful connection to the past.
Monumental UMC will forever be indebted to Centenary UMC who offered worship, meeting and office space, as well as to the first responders who risked their lives to save their Church building. Firefighters from Portsmouth, Chesapeake, the Naval Shipyard and the Naval Hospital all responded to this fire. In response to all these fine folks, Monumental UMC prepared lunch for all the members of Centenary UMC and invited every one of the firefighters to their church for lunch.
According to Joyce Thacker, the biggest story from all of this is the fact that Monumental UMC has not stopped its ministry. They have continued their Wednesday night suppers for the homeless. They have housed the homeless during the Portsmouth Winter shelter and they continue to have the monthly Noon Day concerts. Their Fellowship Hall has truly been “multi-purpose.” They hosted the “Rise Against Hunger” event the first week they were back in their building, and all functions have been on schedule in the Fellowship Hall, even though they often have to take down chairs and put up tables.
Ms. Thacker said, as she looked back over all the events, “I can’t help but feel, Monumental UMC has been spared because God still has work for us. We have been given the opportunity to literally rise from the ashes with a restored sanctuary and steeple and a renewed spirit. Our building is more than bricks and mortar. It is the symbol of hope and resurrection for Portsmouth and all those who have worshipped here or had family worship here in the past.”
By doing some dumpster diving, they salvaged charred timbers from the steeple. The timbers have been made into a six foot cross that will be placed in our courtyard to remind everyone about the true “spirit” of Monumental UMC.
Today, Monumental UMC is still under construction. It has a long way to go. Original estimates were that they would be fully rehabbed by Easter 2019. This date seems impossible now, but it will be fully open in 2019. Costs for this project are in excess of seven million dollars. The church’s Insurance, the Contractor’s Insurance and the Virginia United Methodist Development Company are working together to make sure Monumental UMC will once again be the beautiful place to worship Christ in downtown Portsmouth.
Contributors to this story are: Connie McCook, Joyce Thacker, Darlene Amon, Dabney Walters and the local news media. Tommy Herndon has compiled this story and Tommy, Ted Soto and Randy Shelton are working with the Trustees of Monumental UMC to help them become completely restored.