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St. Luke's Episcopal Church looking to rebuild and heal from fire, demolition to be finished Thursday

3 months 3 days 7 hours ago Thursday, March 14 2024 Mar 14, 2024 March 14, 2024 5:44 PM March 14, 2024 in News

BATON ROUGE - The smell of smoke is still prevalent among the grounds of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, but restoration is underway.

Sunday will mark the one-month anniversary Reverend Bryan Owen walked outside his front door and could smell the smoke of his church. It has been a tiresome month for Owen and the St. Luke's community — constantly reminded of the fire's consuming flames every time it's passed by — and construction workers have started to remove the tragedy from sight.

"It's been cleared of all of the debris, and I think that's just been a heavy weight for people to continue to see the destruction," Owen said. "You can see it, you can smell it... To have it removed is huge."

As the head of the church, Owen's plate has been full with restoration logistics and continuing regular church services, which have been held in the middle school's gymnasium the past month. Sitting at the top of the reverend's list is continuing to lead his congregation through grieving and healing.

Within the first few days of the fire, one of the biggest concerns for the church was the columbarium — a structure that houses the remains of the deceased within the sacred walls of a church. Last Saturday, loved ones' remains were temporarily moved from the columbarium to a makeshift chapel inside of the church office. Removing the columbarium to another site requires approval from a cemetery board, which Owen said will happen after 60 days. The church plans to move the remains in the columbarium to Green Oaks Cemetery until the new church and its columbarium are rebuilt.

"It's the right thing to do is not to keep everything here in temporary space but put it in the care of a funeral home," Owen said. "And then they'll bring it all back over when we're ready."

Once the cremains were removed Saturday, the church was able to start demolition of the church site. Within four days, the construction workers have found some of the church's most prized possessions amid the rubble. One of them, the cross that sat atop the church, was found.

"(The construction crew) looks through it carefully to see if they find anything, and they actually get kind of excited," Owen said with a glimpse of a smile. "When they find something shiny, they're like 'Is this something y'all can keep?' ... They understand that this is destroyed, sacred space ... It's a huge thing to recover for us. It's a sign that God's love triumphs over destruction and death."

St. Luke's insurance will provide some financial relief amid the turmoil of a tragedy, however, Owen does not expect it to cover everything and is expecting the final cost of rebuilding to be far higher than they're even expecting.

But because of Owen's faith, the reverend is not concerned with just how high that final bill may be.

"Money will be an issue, but also an opportunity," Owen said. "... We know that that's where we’re headed, but we also have faith and confidence that we'll receive what we need when we need it, and we’re gonna do (rebuild). That's the bottom line."

Owen was present at the church on Saturday during the removal of cremains from the columbarium. He said he was stepping among the rubble and debris when he found charred pages of a hymnal that had survived the flames. He was shocked.

"I don't know how they survived," Owen said as he recollected the hymnal's words, a verse from the first song of Isaiah. "Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid," the reverend uttered.

Those are the words that have kept Owen and his church going as the witness the very bricks of their church being demolished by a bulldozer.

"To read those words not knowing I was going to encounter that page in the midst of absolute, heartbreaking devastation was very powerful," Owen said. "We're seeing things like that happen over and over again, and I think it's just a reassurance that, you know, yeah, this is bad, but it's not the end. In fact, it'll be a new beginning."

As Owen and his church begin to look to that new beginning, what lies ahead is continuing to grieve, process and gather. The reverend said the church will gather with its members to hear input, dreams and visions for what the new church building will look and be like. After that, then St. Luke's will consult with an architect and move forward from there.

But for now, it's one day at a time, and demolition is expected to be done by the end of Thursday.

St. Luke's will host a special potluck service at 5:30 p.m. this Sunday — one month to the very day of the fire — to continue healing.

"We need to process our grief and we need to, at some point, begin the conversation with people about their hopes and their dreams moving forward, that’ll take some time ... (We) look forward to the day when we can break ground and begin the process of building something new."

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