By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 13, 2009
An early morning fire on March 1 damaged a new church being built for St. Helena Mission just as parishioners hoped to be settling into it.
Church members planned to leave their 1960s-era church building for the new 250-seat sanctuary on Meadow Stream Lane next month. Now it may not happen until the fall.
“It’s going to have to be completely redone on the inside,” said Ron Spencer, the leader of the mission’s building committee.
“We are going back to square one unfortunately.”
Spencer said the response from the North Georgia mountain community has been uplifting and is helping St. Helena’s people bear the setback. People and local churches offered assistance after word of the fire spread, Spencer said.
“This is the part that lifts you up,” he said.
Steve Brown of the Catholic Mutual insurance group set the initial damage estimate at $250,000.
According to Spencer, a neighbor spotted flames in the church, which was still under construction, around 7:45 a.m. The neighbor called police and firefighters as the flames came out of the roof.
Firefighters kept the fire from spreading into the rest of the building and quickly put it out. However, extensive smoke and fire damage will force much of the construction work to be scrapped.
Spencer said he was called to the still smoking building early March 1 and saw how the firefighters needed to break windows to let the smoke escape.
He said the fire officials believe the fire had been smoldering for some time before it burst into flames. As of March 9, the cause remained under investigation.
Spencer said some people at church cried when they heard the news. It has been a project for several years to build a new building to replace the cramped church, he said.
The community broke ground on the $1.4 million project nearly a year ago and had a topping-off ceremony in October to place the steeple on the roof. Father Abel Guerrero-Orta, pastor of St. Helena and St. Mark Church in Clarkesville, blessed the cross atop the church. The dedication was scheduled for August.
Spencer said that insurance payments should cover the costs to repair the church.
“It will be a step-by-step process,” according to Brown, who said March 9 he hoped to order debris removal and whatever demolition work was needed quickly. Then a structural engineer will have to evaluate the integrity of the steelwork, he said.