by Joe Dennis
The congregation of Oconee Street United Methodist Church will be moving back to its 717 Oconee St. location in April, nearly a year after a fire destroyed the sanctuary of the historic Athens church.
“April 15 is the anniversary of the fire, and we all felt strongly that we wanted to return on or before that anniversary,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Lisa Caine in an email to the church congregation. “One year is long enough to be away from home.”
The church consisted of two buildings: the sanctuary built in 1902 and an education building erected several years later. Although the fire destroyed the sanctuary, the foundation of the education wing survived the blaze — with significant damage.
“It had to be taken back to the studs,” said Maxine Easom, chair of the church’s rebuilding committee and lifelong church member. “The smoke and water damage was too much to save the interior.”
After roughly six months of construction and renovation, the building is set to be ready for occupancy by the end of February. While construction of the brand new sanctuary begins next door, the congregation plans to temporarily worship on the first floor of the education building, which consists of a few classrooms and an open gathering space.
“Much is the same, and much has changed from what we knew prior to the fire,” Caine said. “The space looks wonderful and will function much better for us as we move ahead.”
As the education building was being refurbished, members of the church have been meeting at the chapel of Tuckston United Methodist Church on Lexington Road in Athens. “We are so grateful for their hospitality and inviting us to use their chapel,” Caine said.
While still holding Sunday service at the Tuckston Chapel, Caine said the congregation will use March as a “moving month,” furnishing the classrooms and transforming the first floor into a worship space. Caine hopes the Oconee Street UMC and Tuckston UMC can hold a joint service on April 6, before the congregation moves back home.
“My heart is full of gratitude for how far we have come,” she said. “God has been good to us. We have new challenges ahead as we go through the process of moving and as we adjust to our ‘new’ location. But I have no doubts about our being able to do that and to move forward confidently, supported by the hope and faith that has carried us throughout.”