‘They rallied’: Notre Dame blaze sparks memories of 1972 church fire for local pastor, congregation
Published 12:12 pm Wednesday, April 17, 2019
As news of a devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris spread Monday evening, it brought Ed Mesta back to when his own church caught fire in downtown Winchester.
On May 25, 1972, Mesta had been the pastor of first Presbyterian Church for about five years. The church had just purchased and installed a central air conditioning unit for the sanctuary at 121 S. Main St.
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Shortly after midnight, Mesta got an emergency call at his home.
The church is on fire. Get down here. Bring your keys.
“I was shocked,” Mesta said. “I still remember standing there watching it with all the firefighters doing all they could.”
While city and county firefighters fought the fire, Mesta and others made several trips into the church to rescue what they could.
“Several of us started taking out what we felt were the valuable records of the church,” he said. “One guy got all the portraits of all the former pastors. We looked in the sanctuary. You could look up in the ceiling and see where it turned black.
“There was no way (firefighters) could stop it when it got into the ceiling.”
Like Notre Dame, the ceiling eventually collapsed into the sanctuary, though the gold cross in the sanctuary remained in place and undamaged.
“The cross in the sanctuary, which was gold-plated, did not burn up,” he said. “That was a poignant moment for me when I saw (Notre Dame’s golden cross) in the cathedral.”
Like in Paris, there were concerns about the tower collapsing. First Presbyterian’s tower had the one-ton bell inside, according to news reports. Eventually the bell was removed without incident.
Members also salvaged some of the glass from the church’s stained glass windows. Those pieces, along with the gargoyles, the bell, the baptismal fount and other items were incorporated into First Presbyterian’s present building on Windridge Drive, Mesta said.
“We felt we were able to salvage as much as we could,” he said. “I wish we could have saved the communion table. The only thing left of the communion table was one of the feet.”
The cause of the fire was believed to be exposed electrical wiring within the 80-year-old building, he said, which may have been disturbed during the installation of air conditioning.
According to the Associated Press, French officials believe the Notre Dame fire may be connected to ongoing restoration work at the cathedral.
First Presbyterian’s educational wing and fellowship hall, which were completed in 1950, were undamaged and served as the church for the next several years.
After much discussion about whether to rebuild or relocate, the church leaders eventually voted to relocate to 30 Windridge Drive, and the original sanctuary was eventually torn down.
Following the fire turned into an exciting time, he said. The congregation rallied together to make sure the church moved ahead. After about four years, the congregation moved to Windridge Drive and has remained there since.
“I felt the congregation was stronger after because they rallied,” he said.
After the fire, Mesta said a person in the community expressed their regrets about the church burning down.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, the church is not gone. The church is the people. The building is gone,” he said.
The same, he believes, will happen in Paris.
“In one relatively tiny way, I had a real personal empathy with (Notre Dame),” he said.