A bulldozer started work yesterday on demolishing the building that housed Oconee Street United Methodist Church for more than 111 years.
“This is definitely a bittersweet moment,” said Carla Dennis, children’s education chair and a member of the church since 2002. “That building is where my three sons were baptized, where many lifelong friendships were formed — it was the home of our extended family. But the demolition also signifies moving forward, and we’re excited about the future.”
Since an April 15 blaze destroyed the building, the church established a rebuilding committee charged with planning and implementing the rebuilding process. After months of meetings with insurance adjusters, city officials, architects, contractors and the church congregation, the committee settled on local builder Driver Construction and architect and engineer Armetrout, Matheny, Thurmond, Inc. to handle the rebuild.
“It takes awhile to get to this place, but we are finally here,” said Maxine Easom, chair of the rebuilding committee and lifelong member of the church. “God has steered us through these beginning steps, and we are so happy to begin rebuilding this historic church. Our prayers are being answered daily.”
Demolition is slated to continue throughout the week, and Easom estimates it will take roughly 18 months before a new building is finished. The building that housed the sanctuary, located at 717 Oconee Street, will be completely demolished. The structure for the adjoining education wing will be preserved, but the interior will be completely gutted.
“We’re taking it back to the studs,” Easom said. “The smoke and water damage was just too much to save the interior.”
Oconee Street UMC has a long history in Athens. Founded in 1871 with just 16 members, the church moved to its current location in 1903. Over the past half century, the church has been known for its strong support of social justice and service within the community. In 1980, the Rev. Carolyn Morris became pastor of the church, making Oconee Street the first Methodist church in the area to have a woman serve as pastor. A decade later under the leadership of the Rev. Ted Staton, the church partnered with Athens Urban Ministry and opened the city’s first lunchtime soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread. The soup kitchen, which continued to serve from the church through the date of the fire, has permanently relocated to First Baptist Church in downtown Athens. Meanwhile, church members have been meeting for weekly services at the chapel of Tuckston United Methodist Church, 4175 Lexington Road in Athens.
“Church members are remaining committed to the church, regularly participating in worship, Sunday School and mission activities,” said the Rev. Lisa Caine, pastor of Oconee Street UMC since 2001. “The fire destroyed our sanctuary, but it certainly didn’t destroy our spirit.”
The spirit has also been felt from the Athens community. Caine said since the fire, the church has been inundated with offers of help, prayers, cards and letters of support, and donations to aid in the rebuilding process.
“The community support has been overwhelming,” she said. “As a church that has been used to giving to others through mission and outreach, it has been a new experience to receive the gifts of others. We appreciate the support we have received, more than words can express.”
The church is planning a groundbreaking ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 15 at 3 p.m. at its longtime location on Oconee Street. “This event is significant because it marks our turn from looking back and grieving about what we’ve lost to looking forward with hope to what God has in store for us in the future,” Caine said.
For more information on the rebuilding process or to make a tax-deductible donation to the church, visit www.rebuildoconeestreetumc.org.