Congregation copes with loss of church

May 1, 2008 4:27:23 AM PDT
A massive church fire in Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion section reached six alarms before being brought under control. The fire broke out about 7:45 a.m. Wednesday at the Prince of Peace Baptist Church and engulfed the entire structure. Thick smoke poured into the air over the city's Strawberry Mansion section.

When firefighters arrived, flames were visible through the windows on the first floor of the four-story building, which once housed an elementary school.

Members of church came together to pray as they watched their church home go up in heavy smoke and massive flames.

It took 6-alarms and 175 firefighters to douse the inferno inside this more than 100 year old landmark that used to be a public school.

The church provides many community outreach services.

Federal investigators were on the scene quickly, as they are now in all church fires.

With fire hoses still putting out hot spots to their beloved church behind them, the congregation of Prince of Peace prayed for comfort on Wednesday night.

"I appreciate your grief. Many of you grew up in the neighborhood and you have historical connections," said Pastor Robert Shipman.

Elaina March-Donaldson is among those with historical connections.

"It feels like somebody died," she said.

The church used to be an elementary school. Donaldson's sisters graduated from there. After the building was converted to a Baptist church back in the 70's, her family attended services here.

"I remember when we put that (sign) in the ground. I remember when we put that there and how we raised funds, because this wasn't a community of people with a lot of money," she explained.

For many here, it was a devastating day and emotional night. Hugs exchanged and heads bowed in silence. Many gave thanks for what the church provided.

Pastor Robert Shipman said the church would re-build in this community, and continue to give back.

"We have loved every minute of serving in every capacity we've served in over the years, whether it's been for feeding programs, the clothing programs, with the recreation programs. We'd like to get all the things going again," he said.

The American Red Cross says five nearby homes were damaged. Two were vacant and the Red Cross is helping the people who were living in the other three.