By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DAYTON - Three weeks after a fire destroyed much of Dayton's oldest church, the community continues to rally around its members.
"Some people may consider what happened a tragedy, but we prefer to look at it as a blessing,'' said Allan Daigle, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dayton. "The fire brought our community together and gave the folks at the church new hope. We had some people who never came to church prior to the fire who have been coming regularly ever since.''
Dozens of messages of support poured in from people in 25 states who heard of the church's plight through the media, the pastor said. Another 100 individuals or groups in the region have offered money, volunteer labor or supplies to help with the rebuilding.
Fire officials determined that workers repairing the roof of the 109-year-old church started the Jan. 16 blaze that caused $500,000 damage.
Although the roof is gone and the sanctuary gutted, the church's educational wing, gym and offices had only smoke and water damage. The latter areas had electric, gas and phone service restored about a week after the fire, and water service should be restored by the end of today, Daigle said. By midweek, he plans to reopen the gym.
For now, the church's youth group is meeting at the pastor's home, and church members are holding Sunday worship services at the YMCA Teen Center in Dayton, Daigle said. Although Sunday school has not yet resumed, the church added a 6 p.m. Sunday service to its 10:45 a.m. worship this week.
Church officials have put offers of volunteer labor on hold until they learn from insurance adjusters and engineers whether they can renovate what's left of the historic landmark or will have to rebuild.
"I had hoped to have an answer by this point, but the weather hasn't been very cooperative,'' Daigle said. "We're hoping to get structural engineers in soon to make sure the walls and the beams are structurally sound.''
For many in this riverfront community, the church has been a focal point for decades. Youth and adult basketball leagues are among the groups that routinely used the gym from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. For years, the church operated a popular food pantry. The church's youth group also provided a safe haven that "kept a lot of kids off the streets,'' said church member Leslie Pollitt, who'll turn 21 in two weeks.
Even as the First Baptist Church burned, strangers handed loose change to Pollitt's father, Randy, who watched much of the blaze from a nearby sidewalk.
"One guy walked up to me and handed me $5 for the church,'' the 44-year-old Dayton native said. "He said he'd heard donations were being collected, and he wanted to help.''
The day after the fire, a Miami University art student visited the burned-out church to determine if its stained glass windows could be restored. She returned a week later and presented Daigle with a $375 check from change she'd collected from friends at school.
The nearby East Dayton Baptist Church gave $20,000, and Jewel King Jeweler Steve Chuke will invoke the spirit of Elvis at a March 27 fund-raiser benefiting the church. He'll be giving out scarves, hugs, kisses and Teddy bears during his performance at the Dayton High School gym.
"The fact that the fire brought people back together has been a blessing,'' Daigle said. "We're continuing to get reacquainted with the community. One day soon, we'll be back worshiping in a brand new sanctuary.''
To donate, send money to the First Baptist Church of Dayton, P.O. Box 76, Dayton, KY 41074.
Donations also can be made to the First Baptist Church Fire Fund at any Fifth Third bank branch.
Elvis performer Steve Chuke will do a benefit for the church at 8 p.m. March 27 at the Dayton High School gym.
Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for youths 14 and younger and 5 and younger are free. Ticket information: call church member Randy Pollitt at (859) 655-9982.
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