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Burned-out Downtown Memphis church ready to rebuild

Story originally published by the Commercial Appeal

Nearly two years after flames reduced the insides of the historic Downtown church to cinders, First United Methodist is ready to rebuild.

A permit has been filed with the Shelby County department of construction code enforcement for a $5million building project at the corner of Second Street and Poplar. A groundbreaking ceremony is planned for Oct. 5.

"We have just continued to work and pray and gather funds," said Rev. Martha B. Wagley, the church's senior pastor.

Between insurance and fundraising, the church has more than $6 million to rebuild in the same location but at the new address 204 N. Second, she said.

"Something about not having a building re-energized people," said five-year member Sandra Mathias, who has seen more people donating and getting involved.

The fire broke out in the city's oldest church on Oct. 6, 2006. Flames shot high from the church built in 1892, spraying embers onto three neighboring buildings.

It gutted First United's sanctuary and left smoke and water damage in the education and administration wing of the building.

With only the shell of the 10,000-square-foot sanctuary still standing, a new one will be built with an entrance off Second Street.

Inside will be a hospitality area and a nave for the table of the Holy Communion and the baptismal font.

Outside, there will be a courtyard for outdoor gatherings that will be visible from the north.

Hord Architects has designed 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 will be a decked roof on the fifth floor for alternative services and outdoor meditation.

Rebuilding the sanctuary will take more than a year and the education building will be complete by spring 2009, Wagley said.

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 Chruch on Market.

"Just being back on our campus will be exciting," Mathias said.