A Temple church has expanded despite a 2010 fire that destroyed its downtown location.

When First Baptist Church in Temple was consumed by fire in January 2010, the congregation had been looking west to expand the church in an area of Temple destined for growth. The Greater Things Campaign funded the land purchase in April 2009 at the corner of West Adams Avenue and Pea Ridge Road.

Not all the congregation’s members were sold on the idea of moving the church west.

Doug Young, minister of education and administration, had spent September through November 2009 visiting churches that had two campuses, according to “Through Wind and Fire, A History of First Baptist Church, Temple Texas,” a recently published book by David Yeilding.

On Jan. 19, 2010, at 5:20 a.m., a Temple policeman noticed smoke rising from the 1939 structure — a block away from the Central Fire Station for Temple Fire & Rescue.

Bert Pope’s grandparents and parents were members of First Baptist and he was raised in the church. On Jan. 19, 2010, the Popes, who lived less than a mile from the church, were taking care of two of their youngest grandchildren. Marcia Pope came in from a walk when it was still dark and mentioned it was foggy.

Bert Pope then headed out with a walking buddy and soon realized what they were seeing was not fog but a fire somewhere downtown.

“By the time we got to French and Third we decided that either the library or the church was on fire,” he said.

As they got closer, Pope said they could see the flames, a sight that was hard to reconcile.

“I didn’t even have my phone,” Bert Pope said. “I had to borrow a phone to call Marcia.”

Family memories

Pope has a lot of memories of the church, family weddings and funerals.

The oldest of the grandsons staying with them at the time of fire was concerned about where his grandparents would go to church.

“I told him it really didn’t matter, the church is the people, not the building,” Pope said.

The fire originated in the sanctuary and firefighters fought to contain it but it was a total loss.

A number of churches in East Texas had been burned since the start of 2010, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was quick to respond to the Temple fire to determine if it was connected to string of church fires in East Texas.

By the end of January, the Temple Fire Department and 10 ATF agents and investigators had completed the investigation of the First Baptist Church fire and determined it was intentionally set, but there was no suspect.

The fire was on a Tuesday and someone rented the Frank W. Mayborn Civic and Convention Center for the next Sunday service, Pope said.

First United Methodist Church had just completed construction of a building and it was offered to First Baptist for worship services until the church’s youth building could be converted into a place for services.

Sunday school classes were held all over town, even in the Pope’s home. Bert Pope’s class was held in the Chamber of Commerce. Other classes were held at the library, Ralph Wilson Youth Center, Ronald McDonald House, at nursing homes, Temple library, the family building at Harper-Talasek Funeral Home and other locations.

Within about a year, services were being held at Pirtle Elementary School.

The move west was painful for some of the congregants, but has resulted in huge growth in the church.

‘An emptiness’

Larry Neal has been a member of the First Baptist Church Temple since 1951.

“There was an emptiness in the pit of my stomach as I watched it burn,” Neal said.

He, like many of the congregants, stood outside watching the fire and firefighters for two to three hours.

The community was very supportive of the church, not only on that fateful day but through the weeks and months it took the congregation to find temporary locations to worship and hold classes, until it was finally able to move into its new church in January 2014.

On the morning of the fire, there were people who brought breakfast tacos and doughnuts for the firefighters and the church members who were too stunned to think about food.

Neal said the congregation over the past 10 years has transitioned and that’s not bad.

The new church was built in the midst of wide open spaces, but in the past six years, numerous residential developments have popped up nearby.

“There are young families who have joined and it’s good to have children in the church,” Neal said. “We’re seeing new babies in church every few weeks.”

Church transformation

The average age of church members has gone from the 50s to the 30s, Neal said.

In the past 10 years the church has gone from 400 members to close to a 1,000. Last Easter, 1,800 attended Sunday services.

There are now four services each Sunday, two contemporary and two traditional.

As an architect, Neal said he appreciated that First Baptist Church downtown looked like a church.

“Now they look like big boxes and that’s just the way it is now,” he said.

Judy West, a longtime member, said she heard about the fire in a phone call from her father who said he saw something about the fire on TV.

“I was just hoping he was mistaken,” West said.

West said the workings of the church have become more casual in the past decade.

Before the move into the current facility, West was part of the group meeting downtown, which was more traditional. The group meeting at Pirtle was contemporary.

“I sing in the choir and it’s important to me,” she said. “The praise team is part of the contemporary service.”

Ground zero for the fire was the music offices, West said. The $220,000 organ, pipes and chimes were destroyed along with a new Steinway piano.

Banners, costumes, robes and many boxes of music were ruined.

Neal and West both voiced the belief that God played a role in getting the church moved.

“It was painful while it was happening, but it was for the right purpose once it was done,” she said.

Moving forward

As the church archivist, West said she doesn’t want people of the church to live in the past, but she wants to make sure the materials needed to remember the past are safely stored.

A display case at the church is now devoted to items about the fire. In a couple of weeks, West will put up a display to illustrate what the church has done since the fire. The third display will be about remembrances.

“God turned what was a nightmare into a blessing,” she said.

Martin Knox, pastor of First Baptist Church Temple at the time of the fire, noted on his Facebook page on Jan. 19, he was thinking of First Baptist Temple.

Knox is now pastor to Lakeshore Baptist Church in Hudson Oaks.

“I watched as our historic building burned,” he wrote. “I watched heroic firefighters tireless work to contain the blaze. I still remember the look on the faces of the fire marshal and another fireman as they gave me a tour of the damage late in the day. The disappointment in their faces that they couldn’t stop it.”

Knox resigned two years later, exhausted physically, mentally and spiritually, he wrote.

Knox said that he rejoices with the leaders of the Temple church in the wonderful work God has done there and prays for the work God wants to do there.