Church members express disbelief in aftermath of fire at College Hill Presbyterian Church

Published 12:35 pm Sunday, August 14, 2022

Members of College Hill Presbyterian Church expressed their shock and disbelief in the wake of a fire that destroyed a majority of the historic Mississippi church Saturday night.

The church, located at 339 Co Rd 102, burned for more than three hours, according to reports. Crews from the Lafayette County Fire Department and Oxford Fire Department responded to the scene to combat the engulfing flames.

Founded in 1835, the College Hill Presbyterian was built in 1844 and was said to be the oldest Presbyterian structure in North Mississippi and the oldest church building of any denomination in the Oxford area. The pulpit, pews, pew gates and stained glass windows were the original furnishings and features of the centuries-old structure.

The church is also the site where renowned novelist and local figure William Faulkner married his wife, Estelle, in 1929.

Now, the church stands hollowed out— absent of the pulpit, pews, pew gates, stained glass windows and numerous other historic objects— with only the original brick exterior and large, white columns standing. Church members gathered outside the church Sunday morning to take in the damage the fire had left.

“I’m just in disbelief,” said College Hill Presbyterian Church elder Casey Rodgers. “People have been worshipping the Lord in there for over 170 years if I’m not mistaken. I’m just in disbelief that it burned.”

CHPC ‘s interim pastor Clint Wilcke calls the fire a “great tragedy.” Wilcke served as a youth pastor for College Hill Presbyterian in 1991 and 1992 and was married at the church 29 years ago, affording him a deep connection to the church.

“I’m so taken aback and sort of shocked,” said Wilcke. “I really have no idea of really how to process the loss of this. I’ve served here and just the long term history of the church is just mind boggling.”

CHPC Nursery Coordinator Debra Patterson was one of the first people to find out about the fire.

“Someone called me and told me they had heard that there was a fire,” she said. “And I just lived down the road, so I drove up here last night and everything was blocked off. There were fire trucks everywhere. I had stopped across the street over by the little store, I was just kind of looking to see what was going on.”

Spectators noted that the fire started in the rear of the church.

“Originally, we thought it was just in the back,” said Patterson, “but then I could see the flames going up inside the windows and so I knew it was inside the church.”

The fire at the church dealt a heavy blow to people connected to the building. College Hill Presbyterian was more than just a church to the community, according to Patterson.

“You’ll be surprised at the people that just come here,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Sometimes they’ll sit outside or inside.  The doors are never locked, so you can always just come in and pray. It truly is a sanctuary. I always tell the Lord, this is to me, this is the most peaceful place, but it’s his presence that makes it so special. It’s just very dear to my heart.”

Generations of families attended College Hill Presbyterian and still continued to worship there. Patterson’s youngest sister Melody Cole and her daughter Chloe both attended the church since they were born and Chloe’s son was brought to the church nursery last week.

“I don’t think I’ve really registered it yet,” said Chloe.

“It’s not just a building. It’s not,” said Melody. “Our whole family’s gone here. Our dad is buried in the cemetery and our great aunt, who was 102 when she died, and she got to hold [Chloe] when she was a baby. So many people have come and gone that we’ve seen and people we were friends with that we grew up with here and moved on to other places. It’s just a lot of history.”

Although most of the history is gone, firefighters managed to salvage a few pieces of it before it was lost to the church forever. Notably, the exterior of the church and the pulpit managed to survive the fire.

“The old columns survived, inside and outside, the brick walls survived and some of the old doors,” said Patterson. “That’s kind of encouraging, I think. So there’s hope.”

Additionally, an LCFD firefighter saved the church’s pulpit Bible before it burned.

“So many pastors from the 1800s had written into that Bible and preached from that Bible,” Rodgers said. “It was really neat that one of the firemen got it and brought it to us. There’s a lot of history that was lost so we’re thankful that it was able to be saved.”

Despite the tragedy, College Hill Presbyterian Church will continue to hold worship services in the Fellowship Hall located just next to the main building.

“We’re thankful for the fellowship hall,” said Rodgers. “It’ll take us a little bit of time to process this, but we will continue to have worship services and continue to serve. And our people are just amazing. There really is a sense of family here at College Hill. That doesn’t change. The building is obviously dear to our hearts, but it’s the people and it’s the community and the camaraderie we have around a single mission we have which is worshiping the Lord.”

LCFD is continuing to investigate the fire.

County Fire Chief Wes Anderson said a call to dispatch reported that the fire started in the back of the church, however, officials do not know the cause.

“It’s currently an ongoing investigation,” said Anderson.