MORGANTOWN - As members of Conestoga Mennonite Church gathered for their regular church services on Sunday, June 15, they did so with mixed feelings - sadness that earlier that morning a massive fire severely damaged one wing of their church, but all were thankful that no one was hurt in the blaze.

The fire, which broke out late Saturday night and was reported around midnight, consumed a good portion of the church's south wing, which included youth rooms, church offices and classrooms.

"We were reminded that the people are the church, not the church building," said member Lois Ann Mast. "It was uplifting to be together there as a group, and we were thankful that no one was hurt."

The church held their Sunday service in the carport, as the sanctuary and east wing sustained smoke damage because of the blaze. Official reports on the cause of the fire were not available on Monday, but church members said that it may have been lightning that sparked the fire.

The damage to the church's south wing was extensive. Ash covered almost every inch of the floors there, and debris that fell from the roof and air conditioning units blocked hallways.

The fire was reported at around midnight that night by passing motorists, some of whom happened to be members of the church, and reports from Captain Corey Hostetler of the Twin Valley Fire Department, which was one of several fire companies called in to battle the blaze, said that the fire was so intense it could be seen from miles away.

Restoration and repairs have already begun at the church, and workers began clearing debris and looking at the church's structure on Sunday morning, as the congregation sat in the parking lot reflecting on the events of that morning.

"It was good to be together yesterday," Harvey E. Stoltzfus, former pastor at Conestoga Mennonite Church, said on Monday.

Members at the church have also been working to recover keepsakes from the fire-damaged portions of the church, salvaging items such as photographs and trophies from the youth rooms and items from pastor James Wenger's office, which sat just feet from where the blaze ate through the church's roof.

Wenger said Monday that insurance representatives were looking at the building, but that the only estimate for the amount of damage done that the congregation had received was from the Pennsylvania Fire Marshal who responded to the scene Sunday morning. That Fire Marshal told Wenger the church could have sustained to $1 million in damages.

The future of the building was uncertain as of Monday, but the community was already reaching out to help the church, with offers of donated space for both regular church services and the church's upcoming Vacation Bible School. Wenger said that, at this point, the church leadership hadn't been able to take stock of what was and was not needed, so he asked that community members wait until they have a clearer picture of what help was needed.

"We just ask for prayers, at this point," Wenger said Monday. "We had hoped to get back into (the building) after a week or so, but we're being told there is major smoke damage throughout. It may take a few weeks."

Wenger said that the fire came as a great shock to the congregation, but that members were in good spirits Sunday morning as they gathered for services.

"It was really a thanksgiving service," Wenger said, "in that no one from the congregation was injured or killed."

For more on the fire and the recovery effort, see Friday's Tri County Record. If you're a member of the church and would like to send us your thoughts on the fire or your memories of fellowship at the church, please email them to editor@TriCountyRecord.com.

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