Flames destroy 111-year-old church

Passing fire crew discovers blaze; cause unknown

St. Mark Baptist Church on North Detroit Avenue at Fernwood Avenue is destroyed by fire Friday.
St. Mark Baptist Church on North Detroit Avenue at Fernwood Avenue is destroyed by fire Friday.

Updated site and time of Sunday service

Parishioners with tear-stained cheeks gathered Friday outside St. Mark Baptist Church while a massive fire engulfed the 111-year-old central Toledo institution.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Charlene Duncan, a 42-year member, as she watched the destruction.

PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view photos from the scene of the fire

The church at 1419 N. Detroit Ave. collapsed as it burned for several hours. Fire officials later ordered the ruins demolished.

The fire’s cause was undetermined Friday night, Deputy Chief John Kaminski said.

The fire appeared to have started in the back of the church, on its Fernwood Avenue side. It was discovered by the crew of a Toledo fire truck that was driving by on Detroit and reported the flames to dispatchers at 2:58 p.m., the deputy chief said.

Officials began receiving 911 calls about the fire at the same time. But by the time more firefighters arrived, Deputy Chief Kaminski said, the fire had spread throughout the structure.

No injuries were reported but, at one point, electric lines along Fernwood were brought down by the flames and landed on a fire truck, trapping three firefighters atop the rig until a Toledo Edison crew arrived and cut power. Had the firefighters stepped down while the wires were still live, they would have been electrocuted, Deputy Chief Kaminski said.

The church said Saturday it would have morning worship service at the University of Toledo’s Driscoll Alumni Center Auditorium. Scott Park Auditorium at 10:45 a.m. on Sunday.

Ms. Duncan said she and others had stopped to check on the church probably only minutes before the fire started. Shortly after her arrival home, she received a phone call about the fire.

She returned to the church and watched as flames consumed the place of her wedding and her three children's baptisms.

The Rev. I.J. Johnson, pastor at St. Mark, had just celebrated 58 years at the church, the congregation of which Ms. Duncan estimated at 250 people.

“I don't know anything about it. I haven't been there since the New Year's service. I don't know what happened, whether the furnace blew up” or something else started the fire, the pastor said by telephone.

The Rev. Cedric Brock, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Association and a pastor at Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, said he visited Pastor Johnson as St. Mark burned.

“He's a great pastor, one of our strong pastors,” Pastor Brock said. “The church community, we're going to do something for him. He had insurance, of course, but you can't replace history.”

Norman Houston, a Central State University student home on break, watched in disbelief from across Detroit Avenue while the church he considered a lifelong presence fell.

“I was baptized in this church," he said. "My parents were married in this church, my aunts and uncles, everything. I did everything — I was a drummer, I was in their choir — everything here.”

“As the fire volume increased, the building collapsed in on itself, so there is no hope anymore,” Battalion Chief Bob Krause, the incident commander, said while the fire burned. “But the church is actually the people itself, so the structure's gone, but the people are fine.”

The building was worth $143,000, according to Lucas County land records.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at tdungjen@theblade.com, or 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @taylordungjen.

Contact TK Barger @ tkbarger@theblade.com, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.