Schuyler Lake church rises from the ashes

Joe Mahoney | The Daily StarEleanor Wightman, her husband, Willie Wightman, Sue Winne and Pastor Sharon Rankins-Burd are shown Aug. 21 outside the new Schuyler Lake United Methodist Church, at the site where much of the previous structure was heavily damaged by fire.

SCHUYLER LAKE — After the fire broke out on a frosty winter night in 2010, there wasn’t much left of what they called “the little white church” in this sleepy hamlet in the town of Exeter.

The walls were charred, the furnishings were ruined and firefighters were forced to smash through the stained-glass windows in order to ventilate the wooden structure.

The Schuyler Lake Methodist Church, erected in 1880, was almost a total loss.

The fire erupted on Dec. 28, 2010. Whether it was an overturned candle, a malfunctioning furnace or an electrical problem that caused it is still not clear to church members.

But what they knew from that day was they weren’t going to accept the loss of their church. They were going to rebuild.

“There are a lot of people around here who don’t come to this church,” Sue Winne, one of the lay leaders at the church said Thursday. “But when it burned they insisted that we build it back up. They said: ‘You can’t take that down.’”

Over the past year, the church succeeded in getting an insurance payment that allowed for the church to be reconstructed. From the outside, the new church appears to be almost identical to the old church, with the exception of the installation of modern windows to replace stained glass windows lost in the fire.

Inside, the row of painted wooden pews that had served congregants for decades were also gone.

They were replaced by chairs that can be rearranged into any seating pattern befitting the occasion — whether it be a community meal, a concert, a group discussion or worship, noted Pastor Sharon Rankins-Burd, who also oversees the Fly Creek United Methodist Church.

“When I came here in July 2013, the walls were still charred and pigeons were roosting and there were pieces of floor missing,” the pastor said. “But we had faith that this was going to be rebuilt.”

At a time when more churches across the nation were closing than opening, the congregation moved ahead with the plan to rebuild on Church Road, where a Methodist church had stood since property was conveyed by the Wightman family.

Willie and Eleanor Wightman still go to services at the church, 54 years after they were married in the old church. They watched as the fire ripped through the building, and saw the firefighters break out the stained glass windows, including one that had the name of Willie Wightman’s late mother and grandmother etched on it.

“When we had the fire,” Eleanor Wightman said, “it was a good testament of what the church really is. The church is not just a building. The church is the people.”

A celebration of the new church is now planned for Sept. 27, with a service of dedication slated for 11 a.m. that day, followed by a concert and community meal, with food provided by Mary and Greg Aney, operators of Mary’s Pantry.

The event is open to the public.

When the Burlington Flats United Methodist Church closed lasts year, several furnishings from it — including a heavily carved wooden pulpit, a baptismal font and a chandelier — were donated to the Schuyler Lake church.

It cost approximately $80,000 to finish the work on the new church, which consists of 888 square feet of interior space, Rankins-Burd said.

After the fire, she noted, the local Unitarian Universalist Church generously allowed the Methodist Church to conduct its worship services there, and the Exeter Historical Society building was also used for other events.

But just because the work has been completed on the new church doesn’t mean that the congregation gets to rest.

“Our intention now is to house a food pantry here for the community,” the pastor said. “There is a very real need in this community.”

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