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Slow pace for rebirth of Hazel Dell church building

Displaced by arson in May, congregation must wait a little longer to return home

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
5 Photos
Crews with Right Manufacturing move a steel beam inside the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell.
Crews with Right Manufacturing move a steel beam inside the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

HAZEL DELL — Though they were hoping to be back under their unique boatlike roof by Easter, members of the First Congregational United Church of Christ are going to have to wait a bit longer.

After dealing with insurance adjustors, getting quotes from architects and working to secure permits, the church is now expected to reopen for services late this year or early in 2018.

“We’re moving at a pace that isn’t to our liking, but in the end it will be worth what we’re doing,” said Ken Rowe, communications chairman for the church.

Since the landmark structure fell victim to arson on May 25, churchgoers have continued to meet at other locations and are now holding services at the Luepke Senior Center. At the same time, they’ve formed committees to take on the work needed to get back inside their beloved sanctuary.

The three-alarm fire last spring heavily damaged one of the two spires, which together help give the building its unconventional lines. The east and west spires stand between a sweeping, curved roof that featured a 120-foot-long stained-glass skylight to the otherwise windowless sanctuary.

The church, which sits on 5 acres and is easily seen from Interstate 5, has towered over Hazel Dell’s Highway 99 commercial strip since it was built in 1961. At the building’s dedication, the Rev. Edward Hastings, church minister, said that the building symbolizes the Holy Trinity.

“It will never be what it was. It’s not going to look like the church that we left on the 25th,” Rowe said. “You see a lot more activity now, and there’s a lot more to come.”

In the past eight months, crews have gutted most of the office wing of the church and are just now beginning the process of rebuilding the parts destroyed by flames. On Tuesday, crews worked to install a steel support beam to shore up the steeple ahead of the building work.

In all, the project will amount to about $3.78 million, Rowe said.

And so far, no one has been held responsible for the intentionally set blaze, nor the two other arsons that targeted current and former churches that happened later that week. Investigators said the string of fires was caused by the same person or group of people.

Just one day after the fire at the First Congregational Church of Christ, the arsonist or arsonists struck Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene in Salmon Creek. Sprinklers extinguished that fire, preventing major fire damage but causing extensive water damage, investigators said. Three days after that, the former Bethesda Slavic Church in Brush Prairie, which is being converted into Daybreak Youth Services, was burned. Minor damage was reported in that fire.

Local and federal agencies came together to form the Church Arsonist Task Force, offering reward money of up to $20,000 for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible.

The lack of arrests weighs on church members’ minds.

“That’s a little frustrating,” Rowe said. “It’s not going to bring anything back so it’s more (wanting) the satisfaction that the system worked and that we can at least rest assured to know who was responsible.”

Pastor Jennifer Brownell said that the entire experience so far has been one that helped the church reaffirm its mission.

Brownell said the church has been involved in social justice, most recently advocating for marriage equality. With the congregation uprooted, the church heard from people who benefited from their work, Brownell said.

“We realized how many lives the congregation has touched, and I think it just made us more determined than ever to continue that work,” she said. “It was very gratifying.”

Joan Blair, a church member for 58 years who is on the membership committee, said that the church has even grown its numbers since the fire.

“We are surviving just fine,” she said. “Our church family is much stronger than a material building.”

Columbian Breaking News Reporter