ROCHESTER — After more than two years of COVID-19, members of Peace United Church of Christ felt a renewal of faith and community on Easter last month when they came together.
They felt called to this year's theme, "Hope grows here." They looked forward to worshipping in-person as a congregation.
Then the fire happened.
It's not yet publicly known how or why it started, but flames spread through the church's lower level shortly after 2 a.m. April 18, just two hours after a day of Easter celebrations ended.
The fire ripped through the downstairs area between the sanctuary and a church-sponsored preschool. While the blaze was largely contained by fire safety doors and a sprinkler system, most of the church's north side was damaged by smoke and covered with soot. The blaze caused from $2.5 million to $3 million in damage.
This week, state fire officials said the fire was purposely set. But citing an ongoing investigation, they gave no details.
With the fire's cause determined, church members are starting to rebuild.
"We came off such a great Easter celebration and trying to move forward as a church coming out of COVID," said John Kuth, the church's council president. "It was definitely heartbreaking to have this fire happen."
Volunteers and church officials are working with Knutson Construction to rebuild. The building's north side must be gutted. All of the church's floors and ceilings need replacing and repainting.
"Everything that can contain the smoke smell is all being replaced in the entire building," said Jeremy Schrimpf, project manager at Knutson Construction.
The Rev. Paul Bauch, Peace United's lead pastor, said it took only four days after the fire for the church to hold services once more.
"It was so powerful to be able to come back into this place," he said. "When we came back on that Sunday after the fire, it was like new life. We're in the resurrection spirit, and I truly just felt like this restoration was beginning right away."
While happy no one was injured in the fire, church officials say their emotions run the gamut when they see the blackened remains of what used to be the lower level.
The walls are charred or covered in soot, except for places where fire doors stopped the flames. Chairs are twisted; once bright hallways are darkened, and ashes and broken bits of glass cover the floor. Toxic, smoky fumes fill the north side of the building.
The church's food bank and Easter supplies were lost, as were some musical instruments. A grand piano is out for cleaning; members hope it can be restored. A violin often used in a weekly bluegrass jam gathering is gone. Music for the Rochester Men's Chorus is destroyed, and Listos Preschool and Childcare has been relocated to Mount Olive Lutheran Church.
"We were very fortunate to have a spot," said Christina Valdez, executive director of Listos. Another preschool was set to shutter April 22, so Listos staff were able to replace many of their supplies and toys.
Debby Adams, the church's administrator, chokes up when she talks about the wall of photos from youth mission trips the church has run over the past 15 years or so. That wall is gone now.
Sgt. Tony Teal of the Rochester Police Department said he did not know whether any tips about the fire have been received since police reached out to the public for information this week. The city investigated nine arson reports in 2021, up from seven arsons in the previous year and three in 2019. The church fire is Rochester's first arson investigation of 2022.
Police are asking residents with information to share it anonymously through Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or the Arson Hotline at 1-800-723-2020.
The church is still cataloguing the damage. Members say they plan to submit insurance claims next week at the same time demolition starts on the building's north side. The church was built in 1954 and has had several additions over the years. In 1977, it was struck by another fire.
Construction is set to wrap up by next Easter, and Bauch said the church will prioritize having Sunday services inside the building, even if it has to borrow space at other times.
He said church members are also praying for whoever started the fire last month.
"Love abounds, and we want this person, whatever happens, to get help along the way," Bauch said.