After devastating fire, Hispanic church aims to move forward in 2023

Dec. 31—CARTHAGE, Mo. — Members of the Casa de Sanidad church will gather Saturday at Memorial Hall for their annual end-of-the-year celebration.

They will share a meal; people will write and perform plays. At a certain point, they will write out wishes for themselves and the church, pray for the wishes and then destroy them. It's a way to encourage people for the next year.

"At the end of the year, we can be together and dream of the future," Pastor Francisco Bonilla said. "We don't live by the past, we learn from the past, but we live towards a better future."

It's been a hard year for Casa de Sanidad, one of the oldest Hispanic churches in Carthage. A fire destroyed their building at Second and Grant streets in late October. The building and everything in it — chairs, audio/video equipment, musical instruments and more — were a total loss.

Now the church is taking this moment to look forward to rebuilding.

The church is registered as Iglesia Cristiana Hispanoamericana, but through the years became known as Casa de Sanidad, which means "healthy household." It currently has a membership of about 350 people.

Bonilla was brought to Carthage by David Lang, pastor at Fairview Christian Church, looking to reach the growing Hispanic population in the area. After joining Fairview in late 1996, Bonilla started out by knocking on doors, inviting Hispanic people to come to church.

Casa de Sanidad began to grow, going from 30 people to over 100. Soon, they faced the challenge of uniting a diverse mix of denominations in the Hispanic community under one church roof. Members came from many different backgrounds to Carthage, and Bonilla had to balance his message to reach everyone. This eventually led to splits in the church.

After a couple of years, Bonilla started to look for a building of their own. By 1999, the church split from Fairview to establish its own identity and own building. They bought the old Salvation Army on Grant Street, a small building that held about 75 people.

Over the years, Casa de Sanidad kept moving buildings for the growing church, reaching a peak membership of 800. The church also owns a low-power radio station, which was useful for broadcasting news about the COVID-19 pandemic to Carthage's Hispanic population.

While the splits reduced membership, every parting led to a new church. Casa de Sanidad became the root in the large tree of Hispanic churches in Carthage.

"People have said we are the place where the churches have started to grow in Carthage," Bonilla said. "They do not belong to us in a legal way, but we've been at the center."

Destructive fire

On the night of Oct. 22, dangerously high winds threatened Southwest Missouri. A fire started in a vacant building next to the church, and leftover construction material on the lot helped fuel the fire. The Carthage Fire Department arrived quickly, but there was little they could do to save the building, Bonilla said. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Bonilla lives in an apartment across the street from the church and remembers a knock on his door that night. He woke up but nobody was at the door. He could see the fire starting at the corner of the block. Someone screamed the fire was going to spread to the church, but Bonilla didn't know what to do.

"I walked over to where the fire was, and the heat was so intense," Bonilla said. "I don't know how the firefighters stayed so close to that heat. It was so heavy, it wasn't easy to be close."

He moved to a corner of the block, and 10 minutes later, the corner of the church building started to smoke. Bonilla said he knew nobody could stop that, and remembers entering a state of shock. Instead of attempting to salvage items from the church, he returned to his apartment and watched as it burned.

"So, I came back and sat down here," Bonilla said. "My mind was just blank, realizing that I could not do anything."

The Sunday following the fire, members of Casa de Sanidad met at an event center across the street from the smoldering remains of the church. Bonilla wasn't sure how many would show up, but the congregation was packed in.

Working from their previous relationship, members of Fairview have now offered their building to meet on Sunday mornings. Bonilla said it's been good to still gather as a church, and worship attendance has been steady.

There have been several offers on the property, but the third week after the fire, the church decided to rebuild. They know that the cost will be high. Bonilla pulls up a calculator on his phone and types in familiar numbers. He estimates a rebuilding cost of $200 per square foot, which works out to about $2.7 million.

"We will understand what happened to us, it happened with the purpose to rebuild a better building. We are focusing on doing that," Bonilla said.

Looking to 2023, beyond

With excitement, Bonilla talks about his plans for the new Casa de Sanidad building.

Taking inspiration from the Drake Hotel Apartments, a place in Carthage for elderly people to live at a low cost, Bonilla's vision is to build apartments on the first floor of the church for an older Hispanic population.

"My people will need a place to live when they get older," Bonilla said. "They will have no place to live. I want to build as many apartments as I can, in order to help the Hispanic people that will not have a check. Everyone is dreaming of how this can be."

On top of the new building would be the church, with space to expand for a potential community room on the ground floor.

Casa de Sanidad members have many ideas on how to raise the money needed for a new church. After establishing a rebuilding committee, the church is confident, Bonilla said. They're willing to sell tamales and pupusas, hold raffles, sell church property and cars — whatever needs to be done.

"I have a lot of faith, we will get the money," Bonilla said. "I don't know where, but the money is there somewhere."

Bonilla's faith is the foundation for this dream, believing everything that happens to those who love God will turn to good. On his phone, he has a photo of a handwritten Bible passage, Philippians 1:12. Members of Casa de Sanidad have memorized this verse, and recite it during worship: "Quiero que sepan, hermanos, que todo lo que nos ha sucedido es más bien, para el progreso del evangelio,"

In English, it translates to: "I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel."