More than a year ago, members of the First Congregational United Church of Christ watched as their place of worship was destroyed by fire.
As they witnessed the flames blackening the stained glass and devouring the wood frame of their beloved boatlike building, many thought that the metal cross that sat atop the towering steeple would melt or fall off. But much like the faith of the congregation, it remained.
“Out of the destruction of the fire, the church has remained steadfast and not only survived but truly has thrived,” church moderator Tom Yates told members of the congregation who met at the Hazel Dell church on Friday.
Yates said those words as churchgoers gathered around to bless the cross, which had been taken down last month to be cleaned up and restored before construction workers raised it back to its rightful place.
“Much as the phoenix bird of ancient mythology rose from the ashes of destruction to fly again, our church, too, is slowly but surely rising,” he said.
The church fell victim to arson in the early-morning hours of May 25, 2016, when a three-alarm fire raged up one of two spires, which together help give the building its unconventional lines.
The fire was the first in a series of three arsons in a week that targeted current or former churches. Investigators said all of the fires were caused by the same person or group of people, but so far, no arrests have been made in the case.
The fire at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1220 N.E. 68th St., caused the most damage, requiring half of the building to be gutted and rebuilt. The reconstruction continues and isn’t expected to let worshipers back under its 120-foot-long curved roof until late this year or early 2018.
The church is a landmark in the area, as it sits on a 5-acre hill and is easily seen from Interstate 5 and has towered over Hazel Dell’s Highway 99 commercial strip since it was built in 1961.
“The original builders made sure the cross was at the highest point of the building so that it could be seen clearly by not only those who worship here, but also those who live in the neighborhood and in the surrounding community,” Yates said. “So today, we bless, we consecrate this cross, so that it may once again be a sign of hope to all.”
Irma Slocum, 96, of Felida cheered loudly as the workers suspended high in a construction basket secured the cross to the church.
Slocum has been coming to the church for 64 years — all of her children were baptized and then later married at the church and when her husband died, his service was held at the church.
When asked what the day meant to her, she answered “everything.”
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” Slocum said.
Carole Elizabeth, 73, Hazel Dell said that when she learned news of the fire, she felt violated.
Watching each step of the construction, she said, has felt like a small benchmark, a sign that they’re moving forward.
“We watched them pull out so much destruction, so to see something positive like this is a sign of hope,” she said.
She knows, however, that she and the rest of the congregation won’t be returning to the same place.
“When we get back in, it’s going to look different … but the fire has also changed us,” she said. “We will never hear of a church fire or a synagogue bombing or a mosque that’s been defaced the same way again. We know what it feels to have your place of worship destroyed.”