A fire gutted a small storefront church on Georgia Avenue in Nothwest Washington yesterday afternoon. The fire broke out only 90 minutes after after a funeral ended in the church's auditorium and hours before the annual congregation banquet. No one was injured in the blaze, city fire officials said.
The rev. C. C. Hayes, pastor and founder of the St. Charles Baptist Church, who presided over the funeral yesterday morning, said he was driving his car on North Capitol Street ohortly after 1 p.m. when he saw smoke.
As Hayes reached the church building at 4412 Georgia Ave., he said, the smoke was pouring out of the windows of St. Charles. As firemen struggled to put out the blaze, Hayes could do nothing but stand on the stoop of a frame house across the street and watch.
"We've put so much time and money into this church, and loved it," he said, as tears fell from his eyes. "We'll just have to get together now and try something. We can't leave."
Church members and fire officials said the blaze broke out around 1 p.m. in the main auditorium of the building, only 90 minutes after mourners had left the funeral. The cause of the fire had not been determined by late yesterday, fire officials said. Hayes estimated damage to the church at more than $40,000.
Six church members, including deacon board chairman Roy Dixon, were in the church's basement when the fire broke out. "We were preparing food for the banquet," Dixon said later, still dressed in a tuxedo outside the ruined church. "We smelled smoke and when we tried to go up-stairs, smoke met us at the door."
Dixon said that he and another deacon ran back downstairs and helped four women who were working in the basement's kitchen escape through a back door, then called the fire department from a nearby barbershop. "We tried to get back in after that, but the smoke was too heavy," Dixon said. "We weren't able to get anything out."
Dixon said that the front door of the church was open when the fire broke out, but that no one had been in the auditorium. "The only thing up there that could have done it was an old gas heater," he said. "But I don't know what happened."
The church's destruction could hardly have come at a worse time for the St. Charles congregation. The basement of the church had been renovated recently, a vuilding next door had been purchased for future expansion, and the banquet, it was hoped, would help finance continuing work.
A concrete arch on top of the old brick storefront was half completed when the fire started yesterday, with only part of its inlaid glass cross visible. "I guess that won't get done for now," a church member said.
Hayes said that he founded the church 16 years ago with 25 other persons, and that the congregation since then had grown to more than 300. "I can't say what will happen to us," he said yesterday.
But his wife, Ann Hayes, was more optimistic. "God will bless us, even in this," she said. "There's a blessing in this -- some of us could have been killed."
"We'll go on," she said. "We will go on because God will bless us if we have faith."