MILTON — The community is continuing to rally behind Bethany United Methodist Church and its members following a fire which heavily damaged the historic church building one week ago.
On Monday morning, volunteers gathered at the church to help unload a trailer filled with items which had been removed as a precaution from a connected office house as smoke and flames tore through the church Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 26.
Bill McNeal, the church pastor, said volunteers from various area churches as well as the Milton Lions Club were helping to unload the trailer.
McNeal said he’s thankful for so many from across the community who have been offering help to the church since the fire broke out.
“It has been a blessing,” he said. “Everyone looks at the down side. The way this community has come together, it’s been a total blessing.”
Jim Bolich, a member of the Milton Lions Club who was helping with the efforts on Monday, noted that McNeal is also a member of the club.
“This is to show support to a member who is in trouble,” Bolich said. “The motto of the Lions Club is ‘we serve’... It’s good to see other pastors, other individuals, here helping.”
Mike Longenberger, a member of the church, expressed thanks to everyone who has been rallying behind the church since the fire.
“It shows how the community is supporting the church,” he said.
McNeal said the investigation into the fire is ongoing. He said engineers have been planning how to secure the building’s roof, the top of which was burned off in the fire.
With the a large debris field on the right-hand exterior side of the church, McNeal said it’s difficult to move a lift onto that side of the building.
With the top of the roof gone, a hole is evident in the front of the church sanctuary. The bulk of the building also sustained smoke and water damage.
While he has received no official indication on how long repairs may take, McNeal estimates the work will take 12 to 18 months.
In the interim, he said the congregation will meet for worship at 11 a.m. Sundays at West Milton United Methodist Church, 310 High St., West Milton.
According to McNeal, the West Milton church congregation will hold its regular worship from 9:45 to 10:45 a.m. The Bethany congregation service will follow, from 11 a.m. to noon.
Bethany United Methodist Church has a history of bouncing back from disaster.
Longenberger provided a booklet published in 1982, marking the church’s 100th anniversary. The book outlines many of the incidents which the church recovered from.
On Jan. 22, 1924, the booklet said a fire broke out in the church loft. The fire was contained to that area, with repairs costing less than $100.
In 1935, the church went through a $19,137 renovation project. On March 17, 1936, flooding caused $2,732 worth of damage to the church as water entered the sanctuary and the first floor of the parsonage.
“In June 1972, high waters again reached Milton,” documents indicated. “This flood, Agnes, reached the top of the wainscoting in the large Sunday school room, approximately four feet, four inches. Damage was extensive.”
After meeting in other area churches worship, and then in Bethany’s large church-school room, the first service held in the refurbished sanctuary took place June 24, 1973.
“On Oct. 28, 1973, a re-dedication of the church was held,” according to documents. “The cost of repairing amounted to approximately $100,000.”
The church has gone through extensive interior and exterior renovations over the past decade.
The Tuesday, Nov. 26, fire was spotted by Milton Police Department Chief Curt Zettlemoyer, who was on duty when he noticed smoke coming from the building just before 2 p.m.
During services held the prior Sunday, Longenberger said the church lights flashed off. An electrician left the building at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26, after inspecting the electrical system and reporting finding nothing wrong with it.
Milton Fire Department Chief Joe Stump said approximately 75 firefighters from across Northumberland, Union, Lycoming, Snyder and Montour counties responded to the fire.
South Front and Center streets were shut down for hours as responders worked on scene.
McNeal said anyone wishing to support the church at this time can send checks to Bethany United Methodist Church, 18 Center St., Milton PA 17847.