ENGLEWOOD — The massive fire that badly damaged a historical church in Englewood was touched off by a propane torch being used by a worker on the roof, the Chicago Fire Department said Saturday.
The Friday afternoon blaze came just hours after Antioch Missionary Baptist Church hosted a Good Friday service. By 2:15 p.m. Friday, the fire was raging in the church at 6248 S. Stewart Ave., a building that’s stood since the 1880s.
The fire destroyed the church’s roof, which collapsed amid the battle to save the church.
On Saturday, the Fire Department said its Office of Fire Investigations ruled a roofer’s propane torch accidentally touched off the fire.
The same problem was blamed for the 2006 fire that destroyed another historic Chicago church — Pilgrim Baptist Church, 3301 S. Indiana Ave. Crews restoring the Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler-designed building started the fire with a blowtorch while installing metal coping on the roof. Efforts to rebuild the church, the birthplace of Gospel music, are still ongoing.
On Sunday, congregants gathered at a nearby funeral home for an Easter service. Pastor Gerald M. Dew focused on resurrection, but acknowledged what’s next for the church is unclear. He asked for donations to help with the next steps, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Asst. Deputy Fire Commissioner Donald Walker said more than 184 firefighters with more than 50 pieces of equipment responded to battle heavy flames in the roof. Walker said firefighters began trying to douse the flames but quickly had to retreat because the fire consumed the truss roof, which officials say is prone to quickly collapsing. At that point, firefighters had to switch to “defensive” strategies, Walker said.
The fire was extinguished around 4 p.m. Friday. Only one pillar of the structure remained and windows on the top floor were blasted out.
Antioch Missionary grew out of the Salem Baptist Church in 1922 and got its start in Bronzeville in February 1925, according to the church website. It moved several times over the next three decades before buying the church building at Englewood and Stewart avenues from Foster Park Baptist Church in 1958, according to the website.
By the late 1990s, Antioch counted more than 4,500 members, according to the church website.
Dew took over as pastor in 2001. The church then launched a $450,000 renovation, including overhauls to the sanctuary, kitchen, banquet hall, chapel, restrooms, offices and meeting rooms, according to the website. The church also upgraded is sound system and technology.
Shanette Fallon, an Englewood resident, stood in the pouring rain as firefighters continued to extinguish the fire Friday. Fallon said the church is a known pillar in the community, hosting holiday events for kids every year and feeding people struggling with homelessness.
Fallon said her late grandmother was a member of the church.
“My grandmother used to be the first person outside waiting to get into church,” Fallon said. “When I was a kid, my grandmother forced me and my oldest cousin to get baptized there. I was just telling my cousin we need to take our kids on Easter to this church where we got baptized.”
Rev. Allen Robinson, a pastor at New Season Church of Gary and a good friend of Dew’s, said he drove in to support the church and the pastor when he heard about the fire.
“The church is totally consumed. It’s unfortunate,” Robinson said. “There are so many memories in this church. I remember coming here when I was young.”
Despite the fire, Dew was in good spirits when the two spoke, Robinson said. It was heartbreaking to see the church engulfed in flames, but “God is able,” Robinson said.
“Pastor Dew is a great leader. He’s a very strong, charismatic pastor,” Robinson said. “I know that God has a plan for this church, and he has a plan and vision for moving forward. I’m sure it’ll be back up and running real soon.”