A fire that tore through a West Philadelphia church on Tuesday has left the stone building “imminently dangerous,” according to authorities.
Crews will place a fenced security zone around Greater Bible Way Temple at 52nd and Warren streets on Wednesday, said Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspection, in an email.
"If the property can’t be made safe it will have to be at least partially demolished,” Guss said.
But Bishop Benjamin Peterson Jr. said on Wednesday that the congregation will start rebuilding the church in a few days.
“We have a good, solid historic front, so we’re going to be blessed,” Peterson said. “The foundation is strong.”
Peterson said he was determined to hold Sunday Mass at 11 a.m. in a tent near the church.
“We want to reach out to the community to let them know that we’re still looking for people to get saved,” he said.
The heavy fire broke out in the rear of the church around 2:47 p.m. Tuesday, and destroyed the roof and some walls. The West Philadelphia neighborhood filled with smoke as firefighters battled the blaze throughout the afternoon and into the evening.
Firefighters remained on the scene overnight.
And shortly after noon on Wednesday, they returned to extinguish a small fire that rekindled in a window sill, fire department spokeswoman Kathy Matheson said in an email.
There were no reported fire-related injuries, Matheson said.
The church’s lower roof was undergoing repairs when the fire broke out, which might have been the cause of the fire, Benjamin Peterson previously said. Fire officials are still investigating to determine the cause of the fire.
A day after a fire, church members had already started cleaning up.
Janean Peterson, whose father leads the church, spent hours at Greater Bible Way Temple on Wednesday.
With a shovel in her hand, she removed charred building materials that littered the streets and sidewalks around the historic church. Nearby, other church members did the same.
“My childhood is gone,” Janean Peterson said.
“I’m not leaving,” she added. “I didn’t get no sleep last night. I came back here. This is my foundation. This is everything to me.”
The approximately 500-member church was “family-oriented,” Janean Peterson said.
Bishop Benjamin F. Peterson Sr. and his wife, Mother Estella Peterson, the parents of the current bishop and grandparents of Janean Peterson, founded the church in 1956 in South Philadelphia. The church moved in 1971 to a location on Spruce Street then again in 1984 to its current location.
The church was an anchor in the community, neighborhood resident Marjorie Hall said.
It provided numerous services, including a food bank, summer and after-school programs for children, childcare and emergency housing. "There's always something going on," Hall said.
Ronnie Jensen, a former neighborhood resident who attended church services in the building before it was converted to Greater Bible Way Temple, visited the site with her husband, Jack, on Wednesday to "see how bad [the fire] was."
Jack said his parents were married in the church in the 1940s, so "we feel a kinship with these people."
"This hurts my heart," Ronnie Jensen said, while standing outside the church's doors on Bible Way.
Ramon McCoy, 45, was among the more than two dozen people who lived in the emergency housing in a building adjacent to the church.
McCoy, who sat among other church members in a vacant property across the street from the building on Wednesday, said he has avoided homelessness for the last two years while living in the housing offered by the church.
While McCoy has a job as a chef at Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field — “I cook for the Eagles and the Phillies” — he no longer has a home.
“Everybody is displaced,” he said.
Bishop James Brickhouse Jr., who leads The Prophetic Church of Christ in South Philadelphia, visited the site Wednesday and brought lunch for the church members.
“It’s kind of devastating,” Brickhouse said about the impact of the fire. “But the main thing is, we have to stay together … and work together to encourage one another and help one another.”