Rev. Don Phelps wore two “helmets” at the Feb. 9 fire that destroyed the building at 327 S. Main Street in Sycamore, Ill. — as chaplain for the local fire department and as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, whose building was at that address.
“It was difficult,” Phelps told Reporter, as he ministered to firefighters and members. Local media reported that the fire attracted more than 100 onlookers — most of them members of the congregation — and fire-fighting units from 11 communities.
Phelps said he got the page from the Sycamore Fire Department about 5 p.m., as he pulled into the driveway at home. Stopping only long enough to yell into the house, “There’s a fire at the church,” Phelps said he was soon on the scene of the fire, where he remained until early the next morning,
Firefighters first arriving saw only smoke coming from the 66-year-old stone church building and its late-1990s addition. When they opened a hole into the building to release more smoke, the backdraft was “explosive,” Phelps said.
Sycamore Fire Chief Bill Riddle told a local newspaper that the explosion blew the roof off the building and filled the sky with 40-foot flames. It shattered stained-glass windows and injured two firefighters thrown across the alley from the church.
Phelps said that everything inside the building was destroyed except for the church records. The facilities included the 700-member congregation’s sanctuary, offices, two fellowship halls, a kitchen and Sunday-school rooms.
Just the day before, Phelps evacuated worshipers from an early-morning service because of smoke from an overheated motor for the pipe organ’s blower, located in the church basement.
Although the cause of the Feb. 9 fire had not yet been determined, Phelps said it apparently also started in the basement and that no one was in the building at the time.
He said the church was fully insured.
For the short term, Phelps said the congregation will hold services in the Sycamore High School auditorium and have its offices in a city-owned building.
“I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that every single church in Sycamore, probably 15 in all, offered to help us,” Phelps said, adding that the church’s neighbors served hot cocoa to firefighters and onlookers the night of the fire.
He said that members of St. John “were initially shocked, especially if they watched the fire. But now, they’re pitching in to do what they can.”
Sycamore is located just north of De Kalb, about 60 miles west of Chicago.
Posted Feb. 13, 2004