Rebirth On Hold 

First Church’s re-construction at a standstill as it celebrates its 185th anniversary.


In the wee hours of October 6th, 2006, downtown's First United Methodist Church saw over a century of history go up in flames after a mysterious fire began in the church's basement.

Despite a re-building effort that began in 2008, only a steel frame of a steeple and adjoining building sits in the sanctuary's corner at Poplar and Second. Reconstruction of the church's once-iconic sanctuary has been at a standstill for months.

The Rev. Scott Alford, the church's senior pastor, said renovation is being done in phases, and that the holdup is because of the congregation settling back into its home.

After the fire, the church, dubbed First Church by its congregation, held services in temporary locations such as the Cannon Center, St. Jude's Barry Building Conference Center, and St. Mary's Catholic Church. The congregation returned home in December 2009 to hold services in the neighboring John R. Pepper Building.

"We're celebrating being back on the corner here, and we want some time to continue rebuilding our presence," Alford said. "We're steadily moving in the right direction to be complete [with construction], but I really don't know when that will be."

Re-adjustment isn't the only thing hindering the church from completing the sanctuary.

Alford said the church needs around five million dollars to complete the sanctuary's construction, and they're launching a capital campaign in March to raise more funding. Some citizens have already taken the initiative to help.

In September 2008, ophthalmologist Ralph Hamilton and his wife, Barbara, donated $1 million to the church. Bob Canady, husband of University of Memphis president Shirley Raines, provided the church with new stained glass windows.

First Church merged with Whitehaven United Methodist Church in January of last year. Adult Sunday school teacher Jack Christenson said the church plans to sell the Whitehaven church building to raise money for constructing the sanctuary.

Alford said the church hopes to receive support from the community to help fund the remaining cost to complete renovation.

On Sunday, the church celebrated its 185th anniversary inside the newly renovated Pepper Building next door to the incomplete sanctuary.

The Pepper Building, which only suffered smoke and water damage from the fire, now boasts a rooftop worship space, a courtyard, a chapel overlooking downtown, and Sunday school classrooms.

First Church, established in 1826, is the oldest congregation in Memphis, and its building dates back to 1893. At Sunday's anniversary celebration, church members voiced their feelings about the fire.

Christenson said he could still remember getting the early morning phone call that his church was in flames.

"It was devastating to see a historic church like ours completely gone," said Christenson. "It was just horrible. There's no way to describe it."

Congressman Steve Cohen spoke at the anniversary celebration, and he said he admired the congregation's resilience.

Said Cohen: "It's good to see that the fire did not destroy the body of the church, but worked as a phoenix to bring it closer together."

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