And then God was the decider

Published 5:47 pm Friday, February 17, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

During the early years of the 1950s, the parishioners of the Central Presbyterian Church were in a heated debate over the costly repairs needed for their ailing pipe organ. You may recall it was the one that wouldn’t stop playing eeeeee whenever it was turned on. Certainly the pesky instrument was a priority issue, but also was the need for more classrooms, new steps, paint and repairs, and … well, the list went on and on.

As in all testy debates there was another side that plainly argued … why not just build a new church? And lastly, there was the remainder of the flock who simply decided not to decide. Alas, the congregation—trying their darnedest to be Christian-like amidst the swirling embroilment—was reduced to paralysis.

Their barely controlled wrangling was in full swing on the evening of Oct. 10,1954. On that night my sister, Mary (17) and I (15) were in charge of the church nursery. An evening service was going on upstairs while in our care down in the basement were approximately eight babies and toddlers. The nursery was a rather charming room located at the very farthest south corner of the basement. Actually, except for some toys and a couple of cribs, it didn’t look like a nursery at all.

Email newsletter signup

Many years before, the Women’s Guild had done a bang-up job of turning the room into an attractive feminine sitting room. This they felt was important because it adjoined the church’s only women’s toilet. Confined as the space was, they even added a frilly curtain over the one small window. But, alas, by 1954, the room was tired and, if one were entirely honest, leaning heavily on the dingy side.

That evening I was busy with the children when I happened to glance up at the ceiling. I remember that moment clearly for I was taken aback to see bare wires running across the ceiling. At 15, I knew very little about electricity, but I knew enough to know that exposed electric wires were not acceptable.

I studied them further. The fabric-covered wires were layered with a dirty powder which, over the long half-century life of the church, had frayed and deteriorated to the point that the threads resembled dust bunny lint. I was immediately shocked at the disregard the janitor—or anyone else—had for them. Why, I wondered, hadn’t anyone cleaned those wires? But, at that point I was distracted by the children and put the thought out of my mind.

As the evening service closed, some parishioners commented that they smelled smoke … as if someone had lit a match or a cigarette. Several men checked and could find nothing suspicious. But to be doubly sure, Reverend Lyndon Schendel did a second more thorough check before he locked the doors at 9 p.m. He also found nothing.

At 2 a.m., a waitress just getting off work saw clouds of smoke and flames billowing out of the small south basement window. THE CHURCH NURSERY WINDOW!

For an hour, dense clouds of smoke and flames rolled out of that window. Then suddenly a gigantic whoosh could be heard as the fire turned into a furious inferno engulfing the entire church structure. A traveler on Highway 218 said it looked like the whole town was on fire. Within two hours, the church was a pile of ashes.

At this point I must tell you that the nursery was the farthest distance from the basement exit. Had the fire broken out even a few hours earlier, it would not have been possible for Mary and me to run back and forth across the large basement—then up and down the stairs—to rescue the children. How could we two girls have possibly done that while the church was melting into a brick and mortar skeleton?

Uncannily, the only things that were saved were Reverend Schendel’s robe, some choir music and a badly charred brass cross which had been a permanent fixture on the communion table. (After the fire, it was presented to the pastor and then eventually ended up at the new Westminster Presbyterian Church. It is still on permanent display at the front entrance.)

Prior to the fire, Sunday offerings had regularly been gathered to go towards the refurbishing of the old building. Already one-third of the $150,000 needed had been collected. That week’s Building Fund envelopes were stored in the church filing cabinet to give to the treasurer that evening. But, he was absent. Fortuitously, the metal drawer on the filing cabinet fit tight and despite the inferno, the envelopes were recovered intact. In addition to this valuable cash, the church received $120,000 in insurance coverage.

After the flames were extinguished, the fire crew turned their attention to the bell tower on the southeast corner of the church where the top portions of the brick tower were cracked. They fastened a cable around the lower corner of the tower and attempted to pull it out from under the superstructure. The single cable snapped, not once, but several times. Finally they doubled the cable, but failed again. After this, the men decided to pull the tower down, chunk by chunk.

In the days to follow, the Presbyterians began cleaning those salvaged bricks. The idea was to sell them to earn money for a new church. Plain bricks were sold at a reduced price to be used as door stops or “as anything a buyer’s ingenuity might suggest.” There were also deluxe gold painted bricks that were sold exclusively at the local banks. Overnight, doors all over Austin were held open by gleaming gold or dull gray, smoke tinged bricks.

Following the catastrophe, the Congregational Church offered the use of their building. Then almost immediately the Austin and Oakland congregations (which from 1888 to 1953 had been served by the same minister), voted to merge together.

My father was the chairman of the new building committee. Uppermost in his mind was his insistence that the new church be built at ground level—with no steps—so that any handicapped person could come to church on his own. It was a truly futuristic concept.

On March 27, 1955, the cornerstone was laid and by December 11th of the same year, the Westminster Presbyterian Church opened its doors. My father told me that on that first Sunday the back of the sanctuary was filled with wheelchairs!

The Oakland congregation contributed their piano, bell, clock, communion table, flags and drapes. Ceiling fans from my father’s retired grocery store were also installed in the sanctuary. My father, as well, purchased a new organ. The total cost of the new building and furnishings was approximately $400,000.

For years after the fire, many theories were offered as to its cause, but it was all fruitless conjecture. With nothing solid upon which to lay the blame, faulty fuses seemed the main culprits, even though the fire marshal was skeptical. To this day, I still wonder if those deteriorating electric wires I saw that evening running across the nursery ceiling were to blame? But, then, we’ll never know. Will we?