After devastating fire, historic Parkside church hopes to save its facade and rebuild

The day after a devastating fire, congregation members swept away ash, scattered tiles, and other burnt remnants of the roof from the sidewalk.

Greater Bible Way Temple burns from a fire in the Parkside neighborhood, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Philadelphia. (Margo Reed/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Greater Bible Way Temple burns from a fire in the Parkside neighborhood, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Philadelphia. (Margo Reed/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Bishop Benjamin Peterson says his congregation will rebuild Greater Bible Way Temple, the immense 115-year-old West Philadelphia Baptist church consumed by flames Tuesday.

Fire consumed the roof, much of the interior, and the walls, Peterson told reporters Wednesday. But the impressive stone facade is still standing.

“The front looks like it is intact. We’ll probably try to hold on to the front for historic, aesthetic purposes and build a new structure on the inside or behind it,” Peterson said.

A Cash App account and GoFundMe page will be created to help raise funds for that effort, he added.

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The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections declared the historic building imminently dangerous because of loose tiles and debris falling from what’s left of the roof.

L&I said that if the congregation wants to rebuild the church, it will need to consult with an engineer and draft a plan to secure loose roof tiles and make the structure safe. The city plans to inspect the building again in 10 days.

“If this is not done, the city will have to step in,”  L&I press representative Karen Guss wrote in an email. “This could include partial demolition of the church.”

On Wednesday, the scene was morose, as members of the congregation spent the morning cleaning ash, scattered tiles, and other burnt remnants of the roof from the sidewalk using heavy brooms.

After Peterson, the pastor, left to attend a funeral, they refused to answer further questions. But other members of the community testified to Greater Bible Way Temple’s place in the neighborhood.

The building formerly served as a Catholic Church, but the Baptist congregation took it over in the mid-20th century. The former parish house is used as housing for those experiencing homelessness, and also as a day care center.

Parkside resident Paul Ambrose praised Bishop Peterson and his congregation’s work in the community.

“Just the other day, I’m going through something with my wife, and he said I could just stay here for a couple of days free of charge,” Ambrose said. “He got people off of drugs and alcohol. They had a food pantry in there.”

One onlooker, Prezzie Relay, agreed with that assessment.

“They got the day care center, they got little programs over there, they feed the homeless,” Relay said. “They give help to people who want help. They give help to people who don’t want help. The pastor, he’s a good man. Every time I look over there, everything is running smooth.”

Relay said that on Tuesday he saw a man working on the roof of the church with a blow torch. Peterson acknowledged that there had been a worker there and confirmed that “to my understanding” he’d been using a torch.

Members of Greater Bible Way Temple watch outside as the church burns Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Philadelphia. (Margo Reed/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

There are zoning violations for the old parish building — because Greater Bible Way did not have the approvals to open a day care center, and it never completed the safety approval process for the apartments in the rectory.

But L&I said those violations are unrelated to the causes of the fire. The rectory building cannot be occupied at this time because of damage sustained during the blaze and firefighting incidents. But it is not considered imminently dangerous by L&I.

A small crowd of men who lived in the former rectory waited to retrieve their belongings from the building Wednesday morning. It appeared they were able to do so before noon — at 12:25 p.m., the Fire Department was called back and firefighters ran into the rectory with a fire hose.

They returned to extinguish “a small fire that rekindled in a window sill,” according to Kathy Matheson, communications director for the Philadelphia Fire Department.

The scene’s devastation earned frequent comparisons to the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which burned earlier this summer.

Bob Jaeger, of Partners for Sacred Places — which provides support to older congregations — said churches are especially vulnerable to fires. Though he could not claim specific expertise on this Parkside fire, he said that as congregations shrink there are fewer people in the aging buildings to smell or see a fire before it spreads. Many churches, especially those in lower-income neighborhoods, often have antiquated electrical wiring and inadequate fire-detection systems.

It’s difficult to know how to address the issue, however.

“You can’t really legislate your way out of this, in my opinion — a city can’t force every church to put on a fire-suppression system because it’s so expensive,” Jaeger said. “Churches that do so much good for society, should they get a little bit of help if they are being asked to do improvements to their buildings?”

Partners for Sacred Spaces reports that 37 historic religious buildings in Philadelphia have been demolished since 2009, although not typically for fire damage.

Neighborhood resident Linda Davis said that, from the outside, it looks like the venerable church will have to come down.

“There ain’t nothing to save,” said Davis, shaking her head. “It’s horrible looking. It’s a ghost town. I would not walk around here at night because it looks real spooky.”

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