MOUNT PLEASANT — Bishop Steve Wood thought he was over it.

It'd been a year since his church went up in flames, and he'd gotten used to his "new normal" that includes hosting worship services inside a Mount Pleasant school.

But then he saw television images showing flames engulfing Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral. The painful memories returned of his own St. Andrew's ablaze just a year earlier.

Though thousands of miles apart, the two churches had more in common than the fire. 

News outlets showed images of the golden altar cross still standing in the Catholic cathedral. After the fire at St. Andrew's, the cross stood among the ash and rubble.

"I just had a sense of God's presence," Wood said.

Even in the wake of losing its ministry center to flames — forcing church staff to work remotely and parishioners inside a school for worship services — St. Andrew's is pressing forward. The congregation continues to grow in size and faith as it builds its new ministry center, expected to open spring 2020.

Steel framing is being erected for the new, $14 million building. A 750-seat worship space will sit adjacent to a three-story building housing the day school, youth ministries, theological library, adult education classrooms and staff offices.

The building will be about 60 feet wider than the original structure, Wood said, making space for a concourse and coffee shop that will serve as gathering areas for fellowship.

Some of the materials from the former space, such as the altar and cross, were salvaged and will be used in the new facility.

For Wood, the year-long journey has brought Scripture alive. Seeing the good come out of the tragedy aligns with God's promise to Israel in the Bible to bring beauty from ashes, Wood said.

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Lewis Middleton peers from the doorway into the Ministry Center at St. Andrew's Church in Mount Pleasant where the cross remains standing despite the fire damage from an early morning blaze Sunday, April 22, 2018. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

“He promises to bring life out of death, renewal out of something that’s been destroyed," the pastor said. "You read it in the Bible, but then to experience it, it's humbling. It fills your heart with joy and you really have a tangible experience that God is faithful to his people.”

More than a building

Wood got a call at 4:23 a.m. on April 22, 2018, that the church's ministry center, containing the main worship space, day school and church offices, was on fire. An electrical fire that sparked in the roof engulfed the top of the buildings in flames.

Hundreds of members gathered outside the structure early that Sunday morning, many arriving for service to find firefighters pouring water onto their church.

They cried and watched in disbelief.

Jim Grady, part of the church's worship team, was supposed to lead worship that morning.

“It gets me choked up now," Grady said. "I got emotional and couldn’t believe it.”

While the church's large, contemporary-style ministry center was built in 1996, the St. Andrew's congregation dates back a century earlier.

The chapel, situated on Whilden Street beneath live oak trees, was completed in 1857. It was designed by famed architect E.B. White, who also designed the French Huguenot Church in downtown Charleston. 

Firefighters were able to contain the blaze so it didn't spread to the wooden chapel, but the fire destroyed significant portions of the ministry center. The building had to be demolished and rebuilt.

Wood knew congregants needed time to grieve. The church was where couples were married, believers were baptized, and children came to the faith. 

Church buildings are the places where people gather to meet with God, he said. While the church is more than the building, Wood said, structures do have significance. 

"One of the questions that came up in my mind is 'What do you do with no building,' " he said.

The task proved challenging. The church's 40-member staff worked from home for up to five months, making it hard for everyone to stay connected, Wood said.

The church needed 200 volunteers to set up and break down equipment for Sunday worship at Mount Pleasant Academy, and the day school was moved to Sullivan's Island Baptist.

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Rector Steve Wood inside the new construction of St. Andrew's Church Thursday, April 18, 2019 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Coming together

But the tragedy brought members together and helped the church grow. Families from the school started attending the church and St. Andrew's added more than 100 new adult members in a year.

Staff also gathered at area churches and parishioners homes twice each week for business meetings, prayer and Bible study. Members formed a Home Focus team that scheduled events each quarter for members to come together.

The church held a memorial service last year where they reflected on the old building and looked forward to the new one. Drawing from a biblical passage where Jews made an altar from stones, St. Andrew's members wrote on stones words like "healing" and "restoration" as reminders of God's faithfulness.

The stones will be used to build an outdoor altar in the church's new courtyard.

Later that year, members grieved and celebrated the groundbreaking of the new structure and demolition of the old one.

“There’s always a mixture between grief and joy, sadness over what we lost, great joy over watching the new building emerge," Wood said.

The tragedy also brought Mount Pleasant's more than 80,000-member community closer.

Businesses like Whole Foods opened their doors for members to gather. Kim Jackson, principal of Mount Pleasant Academy, said St. Andrew's members have adopted the school by delivering snacks and breakfast to teachers. Wood prays for the school during Sunday worship.

While the town continues to grow, Jackson said local organizations still believe in supporting one another.

“I think it says that above all else, even with all that happens around us, we believe in community," Jackson said.

St. Andrew's split from the national Episcopal Church body after ongoing disputes over scriptural interpretations and administrative controls. Wood was consecrated in 2012 as the first bishop of the Diocese of the Carolinas within the Anglican Church in North America, although he also still leads St. Andrew’s.

Today, St. Andrew's has more than 2,000 members across its three campuses, with Mount Pleasant serving as its main location. In addition to traditional services, bands with guitars and drums offer a contemporary worship. 

Just before the fire, the church launched its Imagine 2040 to address its growth with a new structure. That was revamped after the tragedy to support rebuilding its church, and is still an active campaign and members continue making financial contributions.

Members have been supportive. The day of the fire, parishioners handed in checks for the renovation. Mary Graham, who recently moved in Montreal, has returned to Mount Pleasant several times for special church events.

She will soon move back and is excited for the new structure.

“It’s been a very healing year," she said. "I think at this point, people are excited about how far they've come."

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