Lightning suspected in fire that destroys historic Anson church

ANSON - While Monday morning dawned brightly here, sunlight also illuminated wisps of smoke at the site of a weekend fire, reminding passersby of a huge community loss.

"It was pretty well gone," Bruce Morgan, pastor of First Methodist Church of Anson said about arrived at the 115-year-old church in the middle of the night to see the sanctuary engulfed in flames.

Morgan said the building was apparently struck by lightning early Friday evening, when heavy storms pushed through the Anson-Abilene area.

The back wall of First Methodist Church of Anson is all that stands Monday after a weekend fire destroyed the 115-year-old sanctuary.

Jones County Judge Dale Spurgin said an official cause has not been determined but he, too, believes lightning is to blame.

A fire is believed to have smoldered until bursting into flames between 3 and 3:15 a.m. Saturday. First responders from Abilene, Hawley, Stamford and other places helped in the effort, Morgan said.

Ironically, a member of the Anson volunteer unit on the scene was Christian Ratliff, an Anson High School senior who graduates later this month. He is a member of First Methodist.

"He was fighting his own church's fire," Morgan said.

The north main entrance to First Methodist Church of Anson after Saturday's fire that destroyed the historic sanctuary. May 15 2023

Prayers and offers of places to meet

When Morgan arrived at about 3:45 a.m., the church was engulfed in flames. He knew then the main structure would not survive.

Still, fire crews were able to save the adjoining, north-side education building. It received water and smoke damage but was not touched by fire, Morgan said.

The church located at the corner of Ninth Street and U.S. Highway 277, which is Commercial Avenue in Anson, is a total loss. It was hard to tell, for those who didn't know, that the building was a church. Only portions of the brick structure stood, with the rest of the church reduced to piles of brick and burned wood.

The congregation met Sunday morning in the fellowship hall of Anson Church of Christ. Until the congregation can meet in its own education building, it will meet at the Church of Christ facility.

Average Sunday attendance is 45.

Morgan said many offers came in quickly for places to meet Sunday. He first thought to ask Joe Hailey, preaching minister at the nearby Church of Christ. Like First Methodist north of the central Jones County Courthouse, First Baptist and Anson Church of Christ are located on Commercial, but on the south side.

First Methodist Church of Anson lays in ruins after a weekend fire blamed on lightning

There remained the smell of fire in the light breeze blowing on a strangely quiet Monday morning. There was no school for the Anson ISD, which was taking an unused weather holiday.

Some motorists turned into the parking lot across the Ninth Street to take a look or to reflect on the loss.

Messages offering prayers and help were posted on the church's website:

  • "Prayers for your church family as you recover and then rebuild."

  • "When you guys got to rebuild, I will volunteer times and tools. I Had a construction company before I moved."

  • "From Church of Christ in Davila, Tx, and on behalf of my church family and our pastor, praying for y'all's church family."

  • "Praying for y'all from St. Luke in Corsicana."

  • "You had a beautiful, peaceful place of worship."

Morgan said response has been swift and heartfelt.

"I think we have heard from every single Methodist church, some Baptist churches, some Churches of Christ. They are reaching out and saying 'So, so sorry; what can we do?'" he said.

Spurgin said Anson residents and churches will be supportive of the congregation in "whatever it needs."

As of Monday, means to accept financial donations were being finalized. Morgan said bank accounts and social crowdfunding sites were being considered.

Church is foundational in Anson history

The church's history goes back to 1882, Morgan believes.

The church that burned was built in 1908, about the same time as the iconic courthouse just blocks away. The same architect was hired for both projects.

Stained glass windows were ordered from a factory in Germany, that survived World War I but not World War II. The windows came by boat to the U.S. and were installed in 1919, he said.

First Methodist Church of Anson, as pictured on the congregation's Facebook page. The church was destroyed early Saturday by a fire.

"If you ever drove by it at night and they were lit up, you noticed. They were beautiful," Morgan said. "They were priceless.

"Everybody's talking about 'We've got to get those stained windows back. We've got to put those in.' That's the tradition of the First Methodist Church in Anson."

Morgan's association with First Methodist doesn't go back quite that far. He had been the music leader for 17-18 years when the previous pastors retired. Morgan was asked to fill in for a few weeks.

"Two and half years later, my name is on the sign," he said.

But that sign facing Commercial Avenue is gone.

Signage remaining at the church shows a gap between "First" and "Methodist." In 1968, the Anson church became a United Methodist Church. Last year, it left that organization to join the Global Methodist Church, as have other conservative congregations in the Abilene area.

A new education wing on the north end of the First Methodist Church campus in Anson was not damaged by fire but sustained water and smoke damage. The church last year chose to bow out of its longtime United Methodist Church affiliation.

"Our Methodist roots run very deep," Morgan said. "When we started thinking about a name change, several names came up, but the consensus was that if Methodist is not in our name, we're leaving. One member said we were First Methodist Church of Anson in the 1950s when I first started going here."

The church is registered as a Texas historic landmark. That at times, has been a challenge, Morgan said. Anything the church wanted to do - replace carpet or choir chairs - had to be approved.

But now, the church will benefit from commission resources to rebuild. The building must be rebuilt as it was, he said.

"There is so much history in that church," Morgan said.

'Going to make us stronger'

Spurgin said the Methodist church "has ministered to this community for decades. It was one of the landmarks in the community. Life events had taken place there. The ministry that has taken place there is immeasurable.

"The members of the congregation are feeling the brunt of the impact. But it has impact on the whole community."

The church stands at the corner where visitors to Anson turn west to get to athletic fields, including Tiger Stadium.

It's difficult even for churches to look on the bright side of a disaster, even on a bright spring morning. But Morgan thought of a comment made by a member of First Methodist Church of Anson.

"She said, 'I am not sure what the devil thinks we're doing, but he thinks we're doing something really good because he wanted to destroy us.'

"He's just going to make us stronger."

This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: Lightning suspected in fire that destroys historic Anson church