the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

14 Dec

That Which May Seem Like The End…
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on December 13, 2015

Listen here:

Today, we’re going to do a bit of time travel. But I don’t have a hot-tub, or a delorean. Nor do I have either a tardis or a phone booth. Instead, we are going to have to use our imaginations.

We are going to go back 30 years. Right here, on this very corner of 4th and York.

So close your eyes, let me do some magic. Hoogade boogade, hokus pocus. And now open them up.

01-pre1950So, here we are standing outside the church, in 1985.

Wait, what? That’s not 1985! I think we overshot it by about 50 years! Okay, close your eyes again, and let’s try again. Hoogade boogade, hokus pocus.

02-pre-fire from 800Ok, close enough. So here we are, standing on the balcony of the 800 building across the street, looking down at First U. As you can see, the old steeple is still in place, and the old peaked roof. Where our church library is now, in 1985 there green space between the church and Heywood House.

If we go inside the church, we will see it looks a bit different, too.

03-Sanctuary 1985This is what our sanctuary looked like in 1985. You can see that it is lovely – old, dark wood, lovingly oiled and polished since 1872. We faced a different direction then – those windows on your left were the main doors, and the pews faced east, towards what is now the courtyard. The bay window area in our social hall is where the chancel, or stage area, was, with the pulpit, and an amazing organ that was only about 15 years old.

The sanctuary was very different. And the church was different, too. Rev. Bob Reed, the beloved minister who had served the congregation for 17 years, had left just a few months earlier, and the congregation was in search for a new minister. The interim minister was the Rev. Virginia Knowles, the first woman minister to serve the congregation. Anne Miller was 17 years into the 23 years of service she gave as First Unitarian’s Director of Religious Education. Penny Nader was president of the board. The congregation had about 300 members, about 50% more than our membership today.

December 13, 1985, exactly 30 years ago, was a Friday. The weather was a bit cooler than average for December in Louisville, with the high in the upper 30s and the lows in the low 20s.

That Friday night, there was a pizza party for the church youth. They were here, eating pizza, having fun and fellowship. Carol and John Findling were the chaperones.

As the evening wore on, the temperature outside continued to drop. A cold front was moving in. But the church was toasty and warm – Carol even remembers thinking that it was a bit too warm. The boiler had been acting up but a technician was scheduled to come the next week to service it, and there was nothing else that could be done. As the pizza party wrapped up, Carol and John locked up the church and headed home.

Temperatures continue to drop – almost to the single digits.

And then, something happened. We still don’t know exactly what, though suspicions fall on that pesky boiler.

The fire department got the first call at 3:27am, and the second alarm followed 14 minutes later. First Unitarian Church, at 4th and York, was on fire.

04-nightime burningIt wasn’t long before between 65-75 firefighters and 15 pieces of fire apparatus were on site, trying to contain the blaze. A wall collapsed on one firefighter, David Miracle, and he was taken to the hospital with severe injuries and burns. 2 other firefighters were sent to the hospital but soon released. Many others suffered injuries sustained from the combination of water and 12 degree temperatures outside.

As it became more and more clear that the church would be a total loss, firefighters worked to make sure it didn’t spread. There were watchers in nearby buildings and up on ladders, making sure sparks didn’t ignite the roofs of other nearby buildings.

The church sexton and his family, who lived in Heywood House (which is where the parlor, church offices, and some of the RE classes are today), were evacuated along with their cats. Firefighters continued to hose down Heywood House, and miraculously it didn’t catch fire.

07-smoulderingAs the sun rose, the scene was one of devastation.

Breaux hall, the social hall that was where the courtyard is now, was gone. The RE classrooms were gone. The sanctuary was gone.

For 114 years, the church had stood at 4th and York. And now it was gone. All that remained were the stone walls.

08-firefighter in rubbleThere were at least three miracles in this fire. The first: David Miracle, the critically injured firefighter, would heal and return to his vocation. The second: that Heywood House, mere feet from the inferno, suffered only minimal damage. The third miracle is the one that would help guide the congregation and give it fortitude in the years to come: The wayside pulpit sign, which still today is on our York Street side, provided this advice:

05-wayside pulpit with firefighterThe place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

Arrangements were quickly made for the congregation to worship at Spalding, just a few doors down, on Sunday morning. The planned service was scrapped, and Rev. Knowles instead provided space for people to mourn – it was a service not at all unlike a memorial service.

And just as quickly, Calvary Episcopal across the parking lot, offered their church for our Christmas Eve service. All over town, and beyond, congregations who had also experienced fires reached out to First Unitarian and shared what they could.

In the days that followed, firefighters braced the walls so that they wouldn’t fall in the road or on passers-by.The burned steeple was removed.

12-rebuildingIn the bitter cold, congregants salvaged what they could from the rubble. Some books, some music, but there was not much that could be saved.

Reporters asked Penny Nader and Rev. Knowles: What would the congregation do? Would it stay downtown? Would it rebuild elsewhere?

09-post-fire from 800Almost immediately, the congregation decided to rebuild in place. Insurance would cover much of the rebuilding, and the identity as a downtown congregation was the heart and soul of the church – they had already planted a church in the suburbs. They would stay downtown.

Some were concerned about what the fire would mean for the congregation’s search for a new minister. Richard Beale, a minister in Maine who was looking for a new congregation to serve, found exactly the challenge he was looking for in this fire. He, too, understood the wisdom of the wayside pulpit quote.

In the years that followed, the congregation went through a lot. They met at different places: Spalding, and Plymouth Congregational Church, West End Congregational Church and elsewhere. They brought in experts to design the new building – a building that would be featured locally and beyond for its architectural blending of old and new – a building built with the original walls.

For some, this time of transition was too much, and they left the church. But others stayed. And those who stayed were brought together. They had to choose to stay, and in making that commitment, dedicated themselves to the future of the congregation.

The first service in the new building, in the building we are in now, was held on March 26, 1989. Easter Sunday. We’ll have to wait three and a quarter years for part 2 of this sermon, which will be the story of the new building and where we have gone since then.

First Unitarian Church burned, but like a phoenix (an icon that would continue to inspire) it rose again out of the ashes. The devastation that at first may have seemed like an end, truly became a beginning. And we continue to live this legacy today.

In just a few moments, I will open the floor for reflections from those of you who were there. What do you remember most about the old church? And what did the fire mean to you? But before that sharing, let us return to December 13, 2015. Close your eyes…Hocus Pocus.

IMG_4313Ahh, it is good to be back in 2015. Thank you for time traveling with me today.

Musical interlude

I can only imagine what it might have been like on that night 30 years ago, and in the days, weeks and months that followed. But I know many of you were there. I invite you now to tell your story about the fire and it’s aftermath. How was the fire an ending for you? And how was it also a beginning?


Thank you for sharing your stories. I invite everyone to celebrate these stories, and perhaps continue the conversation, over cake during coffee hour. And as you leave, think about how long these walls have stood here on this corner, and what they have endured, and what stories they might tell were they able.

10-Rebuilding wayside pulpitFirst Unitarian Church has been living it’s mission in downtown Louisville since 1830, and right here at 4th and York since 1870. And we have been worshipping in this uplifting, light-filled, beautiful space since 1989. This congregation has suffered fire, flood and homelessness, but it never lost its identity as an urban church.

May this history and this identity continue to inform us today. And whenever we may find ourselves at an impasse, may we be heartened by the knowledge that what at first might seem like an end, may really and truly be just the beginning.

One Response to “the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.”

  1. John Nader December 14, 2015 at 11:30 pm #

    Thanks Dawn. I’ll never forget the night of the fire. Shortly before first light Penny, Stephanie, Kevin and I hugged each other as we stood across the street at the Library and looked at what had been our church. We all cried. I am sure that I have pictures stashed some where.

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