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First United Methodist Church rising from the ashes

Story originally published by the Commercial Appeal

In the same spot where firefighters battled a three-alarm blaze two years earlier, people gathered on Sunday to celebrate the rebuilding of First United Methodist Church.

Several hundred people crowded around the rubble-littered crater, where the impressive neo-gothic church had stood before a fire on Oct. 6, 2006 turned most of it to cinders.

"May God bless these sacred grounds," said the church's senior pastor, Rev. Martha B. Wagley, who joined other dignitaries pressing their shovels into the earth.

With only the skeletal facade of the 1892 sanctuary intact, county and city mayors, as well as U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, sat at the corner of Second and Poplar in the unobstructed sun.

"This church represents the spirit of Downtown and a spirit of revival," said Cohen to the gathering.

The event was part of a "Day of Downtown Rebirth," which included the groundbreaking for neighboring construction to replace the Court Annex Building, also lost in the 2006 fire.

Both church and non-church members came out to honor First United, home to Memphis' oldest congregation.

Pointing to where the glass from the large arching windows had turned molten and dried like dripping candle wax, Sara Misner of East Memphis said, "We used to have such beautiful stain glass windows."

Even though Misner is a Presbyterian, like many longtime Memphians, she takes ownership of the Downtown landmark.

"It's just a special church," she said.

Rebuilding the sanctuary will take more than a year. The education building, which received water and smoke damage, will be complete by spring 2009.

Using some of the salvaged limestone and granite, the new house of worship will be reminiscent of its former structure with arches and marble columns.

Hord Architects is designing the space and Grinder, Taber and Grinder Inc. is the general contractor.

The 35,000-square-foot education wing will be renovated, adding a coffee shop and Internet cafe.

New to the church will also be a decked roof on the fifth floor for alternative services and outdoor meditation.

A $5 million building permit was filed with the Shelby County Department of Construction Code Enforcement in September but church officials expect the project will exceed that cost.

"Just let me live long enough to get inside the new building," teased 90-year-old Elizabeth Caldwell, leaning on her walker. Caldwell has been coming to First United since she was a 10-year-old and has been a member of the congregation longer than anyone.

"It's heartbreaking," she said about the loss of the sanctuary. "But we've got to go on with the rebuilding."

First United has been holding services at the Barry Building Conference Center on the campus of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and at St. Mary's Catholic Church on Market.

"We have not missed a single Sunday," said Rev. Wagley. "That's the dedication of our congregation."