MILTON — Members of Bethany United Methodist Church gathered for a time of fellowship and to decorate for the Christmas season following Sunday’s service. Two days later, with heavy smoke and flames shooting from the roof of the historic church building, those same church members stood in a circle praying from the nearby municipal parking lot.
“No matter what gets destroyed, God is still standing strong,” Bill McNeal, the church pastor, said. “We’ve had damage to a building, but not to the church.”
Mike Longenberger said he received a phone call just after 2 p.m. alerting him to the fact that the building was on fire.
“I was a member here my entire life,” Longenberger said. “This is my church.”
During services on Sunday, he said the church lights flashed off. He said an electrician left the church at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday after inspecting the electrical system and reporting finding nothing wrong with it.
Milton Police Department Chief Curt Zettlemoyer said he was on duty just before 2 p.m. Tuesday when he spotted smoke coming from the building. Zettlemoyer immediately radioed the communications center, asking for the fire department to be called to the scene. No one was inside the building when the fire broke out.
Milton Fire Department Chief Joe Stump said approximately 75 firefighters from across Northumberland, Union, Lycoming, Snyder and Montour counties responded to the blaze.
The ladders from multiple aerial trucks were extended over the building, with crews on each truck working to spray water onto the fire.
“A lot of work had to be done from the exterior,” Stump said. “With a building that size, and because of how tall and steep the roof is, it’s safer to have those aerial trucks there… You can’t get onto that roof.”
He said several crews with hose lines worked to douse the fire from inside the building.
“The fire was contained to the ceiling above the sanctuary,” Stump said, adding that the right front portion of the roof caved in from the exterior.
He said the church sustained “a lot of water and smoke damage.” However, he remains hopeful the building can be restored.
“I think the stone shell is good,” he said, adding that the roof will have to be replaced. “They will have to have engineers come in and take a look at it.”
Stump said the church was insured.
A Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal was scheduled to inspect the building this morning. The fire is not considered to be suspicious.
Stump said there were no water supply issues as the surrounding hydrants are connected to a main water line which runs through the area.
Longenberger and other church members who came to the fire scene were, at times, emotional as they watched heavy smoke continue to billow from the building.
“What we did, after the service (on Sunday) we had a luncheon together,” Longenberger said. “Then, we did all the Christmas stuff in the church. We decorated.”
According to Longenberger, the church was built in 1882 and has gone through extensive renovations over the past 10 years.
Longenberger detailed some of those renovations in two separate stories published by The Standard-Journal in 2014.
At the time, he said The Baut Studios Inc., of Swoyersville, was using glass to replace plexiglass which had been placed over the church’s stained-glass windows.
Those windows, Longenberger said, were installed in 1916. The windows feature such things as the founder of the Methodist church, a sheep and shepherd, Christ in Gethsemane and a peace dove.
Joe Lupo, the Milton Fire Department’s deputy chief, said on Tuesday the windows sustained some minor damage, mainly from smoke.
In a separate 2014 article, it was noted that eight copper fixtures were replaced on the church’s steeple.
At the time of that work, Longenberger said the church had invested $400,000 in renovations to the facility, made possible through donations to the church from members.
Rod Moore, a church member, said at the time he was proud of the work taking place at the facility.
“The church is going to be preserved,” he said, in 2014. “It is very much a part of this community.”
He joined Longenberger and other church members on the scene of the fire Tuesday.
“It’s one of the oldest churches in the town,” Longenberger said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a large amount of people (attending). It’s the most beautiful church, with the windows and all the (decorative fixtures).”
Both he and McNeal offered thanks to the responders, and representatives from a number of Milton-area churches, who came to the scene to offer support.
“I’m glad nothing happened to anybody,” Longenberger said. “I’m glad there are so many volunteers. If you look at all of them, thank God they’re OK.”
McNeal said it was important for the church members to pray together as responders worked to extinguish the fire.
Stump was immediately cognizant of the building’s rich history in the community when he heard the fire dispatched.
“My first thought when I got there was ‘this is a piece of history in Milton,’” Stump said. “‘We need to do everything we can to save this’… You have a whole community looking on you and looking at you to save that piece of history.”
As firefighters worked to douse the flames, church members and other volunteers started carrying filing cabinets and other items out of an office building, connected to the church.
Many of those supplies were loaded onto a trailer donated by Christ Wesleyan Church.
“This is a reassurance of how much this is a community,” McNeal said. “We are all one church. They have all come together to help out, offer places to worship.”
A number of members of the Milton Ministerium came to the scene, offering hugs and other gestures of encouragement to McNeal and his church members.
“Our hearts are saddened today as a church community at the loss of this beautiful building,” Jilline Bond, president of the ministerium and a member of the pastoral staff at Revival Tabernacle, said. “We are thankful Pastor Bill and his congregants are safe.”
Bond said Revival Tabernacle would be offering to help in any way needed.
“There will be a lot of churches that feel that way,” she said. “As pastors, we are very close and we work together.
“We never understand why things like this happen,” Bond continued. “We always find strength in the community.”
Emotions were running high among many who came to the scene of the fire. Milton Mayor Ed Nelson was among those looking on.
“This is sad,” he said. “It’s sad to see a historical church such as this one go through this.”
South Front and Center streets in the area of the fire were shut down for hours as responders worked on scene.
Lupo noted that volunteers from the Milton department were on scene until about 7:30 p.m. As he worked from the station after the fire, he expected crews to spend about an hour of additional time cleaning equipment and preparing for the next emergency.
“You come back (to the station), you have to have all your air packs refilled, all the tools cleaned,” he said.
“People will be here washing their gear, at times, for the next two or three days,” Stump added.
In addition to the Milton fire department, Stump said firefighters from White Deer Township, the Warrior Run area, Lewisburg, Turbot Township, Mifflinburg, Point Township, Northumberland, Sunbury, Mahoning Township, Montgomery, Muncy, Montoursville and Kratzerville were called to the scene.
Lupo said the Milton Police Department would be patrolling the area around the church building throughout the night to make sure the building remained secure.
A Help Restore Bethany United Methodist Church Go Fund Me page was quickly established on Tuesday. By the evening, $420 had been pledged.