HALIFAX — Scores of people clad in white gathered Sunday for a healing service in a community gym across the street from a fire-ravaged historic church just outside Halifax.
The service was originally scheduled to take place in St. Thomas Baptist Church in North Preston, N.S., but was moved after a blaze tore through the church last Wednesday.
No one was injured, but the fire left a gaping hole in the roughly century-old building that serves as the social hub for the predominantly black community of about 4,000 people.
Rev. Wallace Smith told the crowd that the charred structure was just a building, and that the congregation was the actual church
Tony Atuanya, the church's finance officer, said its insurance policy would cover the full cost of damages, and noted there has been a surge in donations in the wake of the fire.
About one-third of the audience left their seats to hold hands and sway before the choir as it led them through an exultant hymn, punctuated by moments of contemplation.
"We don't have to be in church to serve the lord," said church trustee Ernest Simmonds. "We could do it here. We could it at home. We could do it out on the streets."
Simmonds said the damage to the church was significant, but manageable. The fire marshal has deemed the fire to be the result of an engineering problem involving a faulty motor, he told the congregation.
Colter Simmonds said he has been a member of the church for decades, but Sunday's service was the first he had attended in a year.
"I watched (the church) on fire, and I started thinking about ... the state of the community, and knowing that the church was the foundation that we all grew up on," he said. "It could have been lost and gone, and I just felt I needed to be there to support it."
Smith, who estimates that as many as 600 people sit in his pews on some Sundays, said he is not sure when the church will reopen its doors.
The building suffered around $200,000 in damages, he said, and until it is repaired, he will hold services in other locations that have loaned their facilities.
Smith said the service was emotional for the congregation, some even shedding a few tears for the cherished sanctuary that has been central to life in North Preston since the church was founded in 1856.
The fire has also brought the community together, he said, with several churchgoers he had not seen in a while returning to the flock along with some newcomers.
"I was amazed and overwhelmed when I saw people from different communities coming up for their healing," said Smith. "People were asking me before I left church, 'When are we having the next one?'"
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press