Members of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division were shoveling through the remains of St. Stephen AME Church on Monday but that does not mean arson is suspected, according to Georgetown Police Capt. Nelson Brown.
It wasn’t just a church building destroyed by fire Sunday. It was a piece of Georgetown’s history.
What was the Greater St. Stephen AME Church building on Winyah Street is now a huge pile of ashes and rubble after flames quickly leveled the structure before daybreak Sunday.
The cause of the fire is unknown. The investigation into the origin was quickly turned over to Georgetown Police on Sunday. On Monday, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division was called in to assist.
Police Capt. Nelson Brown said the decision to involve SLED does not mean arson is suspected.
He said SLED has a "better expertise" in investigating fires and is being used just to determine the cause.
SLED officers spent time Monday afternoon digging through the charred remains of the historic structure.
Assistant Fire Chief Bill Johnson said it could take weeks or months before a determination is made on how the fire started. And, he said, it’s possible — because of the extent of the massive blaze that quickly leveled the church — the cause may never be known.
The congregation of the church will hold Sunday services this week at The Meeting Place at 2921 Highmarket Street.
Leaders and members met Sunday night to begin making plans on how to bounce back from the fire.
Rev. Carl Anderson said services are expected to be held at The Meeting Place this week only. He said he has received offers from other churches in the area to use their facilities.
The Meeting Place is operated by the Georgetown Outreach Ministry, Inc. and is part of the AME church.
History in ashes
The church, according to information compiled by members, was founded in 1897 and the first services were held in a tent.
The first church building was constructed in 1902.
Under the direction of Rev. B.J. Finklea, the building which was destroyed Sunday was built in the 1940s, although the fellowship hall was added later.
Rev. Anderson said the church was full of historical artifacts that are now gone.
“Those pews were installed in the 1940s and the lighting was installed by the ladies of the church many many years ago,” Anderson said. “Those are things you cannot get back. Things like offering tables that were donated in the memory of loved ones.”
Some of the lighting around the walls of the sanctuary was purchased by Anderson’s family in memory of his son, Airman 1st Class Carl L. Anderson Jr., who died in 2004 when a roadside bomb exploded near the military convoy in which he was riding in Iraq.
Also gone is a glass showcase that held photos of former pastors and trophies earned by the church. It also contained old Bibles with page after page of handwritten church history and notes about the families who have made up the membership through the decades.
There were also photos destroyed taken in November, 2007, when former President Bill Clinton visited the church as he was campaigning for his wife, Hillary, who was running for president at the time.
“There was a mural on the wall the children’s choir donated to the church many years ago,” Anderson said.
Anderson said he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support the church has received this week.
“I have received emails and phone calls from people all over the country,” he said.
By Scott Harper
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