By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor

Pictured above, Rev. Greg Godwin of First United Methodist Church in Clarksburg  poses beside a large framed photograph – an aerial view of the aftermath of the 1951 fire that destroyed the church.  He also holds a copy of the paperback devotional book that will be given to first responders at the church’s special celebration on June 4th.

First United Methodist Church in Clarksburg is looking forward to opening its door to the public during its regular morning worship service at 10:45 a.m. on Sunday, June 4th for a ‘Community Celebration Service’ that will serve more than one purpose.

According to Senior Pastor Greg Godwin, the service will celebrate some of the church’s recent milestone anniversaries.  For example, it was 65 years ago in September when the church originally built in 1909 was destroyed by a blazing fire;  it was 60 years ago in June when the newly constructed church was sufficiently complete enough to hold services there once again; and it was 50 years ago in August when the church had met its mortgage obligations and could officially be dedicated.

“We will be celebrating these recent anniversaries that are part of our church’s history at our June 4th service while at the same time gratefully remembering how we recovered,” stated Rev. Godwin.  “That recovery process involved the help and service of many people, and this service will also honor them.  It will be a time when we express our heartfelt gratitude to all those who offered their assistance.”

Some may still remember the smoke-filled sky as the massive fire took over the downtown church late in the evening on September 4, 1951.  Although he had not yet been born at that time, Rev. Godwin’s father, Charles Godwin, took over his duties as Associate Pastor of First Church the day after that horrific fire (his first job out of seminary!), so he remembers well hearing the stories of the church’s destruction through the years.

“The Red Cross was hosting a blood drive in the basement of the church that day but had left by the time the fire was noticed.  They were to return the following day for another collection, but of course that didn’t occur.  I don’t know that a cause of the fire was ever determined, but they ruled out an electrical fire because people saw lights burning from within.  However, it was determined that it originated in the church basement where it had likely been smoldering for several hours before being noticed,” he recalled.  “Miraculously, the church parsonage is right next door but suffered only minor damage.  There was tremendous concern because many businesses in the downtown area were also nearby as well as schools, homes, gas stations, hotels, etc.; they too were unharmed.”

Old church records show that one First Church official at the time, Mr. Harvey W. Harmer, drafted a resolution thanking the city’s fire department for their “splendid work” as well as departments from seven neighboring communities that came to assist.   In Mr. Harmer’s words, had it not been for their quick response and capabilities, “the heart of the city would now be in ashes”.

Rev. Godwin continued, “Sixty-five years ago this church depended on local first responders (firefighters, police, etc.), and our June 4th service will be to honor them and recognize what they do.  Each of the first responders in attendance will be given a copy of Strength for Service To God And Community, a paperback book of daily devotional messages designed to give them strength as they often face threatening situations.”

This book, when first published in 1942, was originally titled Strength for Service To God And Country and included spiritual messages for troops serving during World War II; 1.5 million copies were distributed during that war. Years later, Evan Hunsberger of California took it upon himself to have a second edition of the book published as an Eagle Scout project so that it could be given to military personnel in subsequent wars.  It was also distributed to community service employees and requests were made that the book better address their specific needs as first responders.  In 2013, Strength for Service to God and Community answered that request.

Following the 1951 First Church fire, the congregation had no home and groups that met there no longer had a meeting site.  Thanks to a very generous outpouring of support from the community, those needs were all met.  Various local churches, the Board of Education and the YWCA, to name a few, offered space for Sunday School classes and meetings.   It was the spacious Robinson Grand Theatre in downtown Clarksburg that offered – at no charge – to allow worship services to be held there.  It became the church’s temporary worship center every Sunday for the next five years!  In addition, Weber’s Florist donated fresh flowers for the stage each week for services.

“Once again, the church’s needs were met thanks to their compassion,” Rev. Godwin stated.  “We feel this is good timing to remind ourselves of their support, and now we will offer them our support.  At our June 4th Celebration Service, we will present the City of Clarksburg with a $5,000 check to be used toward the renovation of what will be called the Robinson Grand Center for the Performing Arts.”

Godwin says this will not be a traditional service.  “There will be special music and we will dedicate the service to people in public service.  So many times, celebrations are internal, but we are reaching out to the community, to the public.  We would like for them to attend.  And particularly, we want to lift up our first responders and ask for their protection … to let them know that we appreciate what they do because it is often taken for granted.  It will serve as a reminder to all of us that those who work in public service are always there for us and let them know how deeply we appreciate what they do,” he added.

And … there is one more commemoration that day!  First Church consecrated its glorious new Casavant pipe organ (one of the largest in the state of West Virginia) on April 30, 1967, so the day will also include a celebration of the organ’s golden anniversary.   That same afternoon – at 3 p.m. on June 4th – a special organ recital will be held featuring Dr. Kipp Cortez, a music professor at Concord University in Athens, WV.

People often remember with greater clarity when something dramatic has occurred, and so it is for Clarksburg’s First United Methodist Church.  Many good deeds were performed; they were generously offered   much support.  It all left a mark that has remained for over 65 years.  In their memory is a library of their history and snapshots of devastation.  Good deeds helped them recover, and on June 4th they will pay it forward.