‘It meant everything to me’: Bishopville community grieves loss of 140 year old church in fire

Published: Aug. 31, 2021 at 9:43 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - When members of a Lee County church gathered this past Sunday, they didn’t know it would be their last service in their historic building.

The 140-year-old Jerusalem Baptist Church in Bishopville burnt to the ground in a fire Monday morning.

Lee County Sheriff Daniel Simon said it took several hours for crews from multiple departments to extinguish the flames, with “excruciating” heat heightening the challenge.

“They had church on Sunday, and everything was fine, and 24 hours later, the church is no longer here,” Simon said.

The historic Black church was built in the 1880s and had undergone at least one significant renovation in the 1960s when a new brick structure was added to the outside of the building.

Monday’s fire, which was called in around 9 a.m., according to Simon, exposed part of the wood structure that was original to Jerusalem Baptist.

PREVIOUS STORY | SLED investigating fire at 140 year old church in Bishopville

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s Arson Unit was called to investigate, which is standard for church fires in South Carolina. While investigators have not yet determined a cause, they have not found evidence of arson or criminal activity, and the case remains open, according to SLED’s public information officer.

“It’s going to be some history that’s going to be lost that can never be replaced,” Simon said.

Church members — many of whom drove to Jerusalem Baptist on Tuesday to take photos, see the damage, share memories, and grieve — said they were grateful no one was inside at the time of the fire or hurt.

“I watched all the ceiling just fall in on it, and my heart just went tremendously, just left me. It meant everything to me,” said Myron Martin, who also did maintenance and landscaping work at the church.

Martin visited the church at the same time Tuesday as the church’s clerk, Hannah Parler.

Both said before the church was full of displaced bricks and piles of rubble, it was full of life.

“Our services were always lit,” Parler said. “We are a hyper group. Our music is outstanding. Our choirs are outstanding.”

Recent Sunday services had been even more meaningful, as Jerusalem Baptist had just resumed in-person services after they had been put on hold for more than a year because of the pandemic.

Now, Parler said she feels empty, with the church that she and her family have called home for 20 years destroyed.

“I felt like I had just got a phone call that I lost a loved one,” she said.

Church members and Simon said other churches in the area have already reached out to Jerusalem Baptist, offering to host their services in the meantime.

Parler said while they don’t know what the church will do in both the short-term and long-term future, they would be letting their faith guide them.

“That’s what our pastor, Rev. Julia V. Sanders since we got back in church back in July due to COVID, that has been our word, and that has been our path. We’re walking by faith and not by sight,” she said.

While Jerusalem Baptist will likely be accepting donations in the future for a rebuilding fund, according to Parler, they are asking anyone who wants to help for now to pray for their church family and pastor.

“We just thank God that we’re still a family,” Martin said. “We’re gonna pray together, and we’re gonna stay together.”

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