Massive fire destroys Lafayette County church built in 1800s, firefighters rescue historic Bible
LAFAYETTE COUNTY, Miss. (WCBI) – Investigators are still trying to determine what started the massive fire that heavily damaged a historic church just outside Oxford.
College Hill Presbyterian Church was built in the 1840s and was the oldest church in the Oxford area.
The church’s history includes being a campsite for Ulysses S. Grant and Union troops during the Civil War and was where author William Faulkner was married.
The church cemetery includes the graves of slaves and both Union and Confederate soldiers.
Saturday night, it went up in flames.
“We observed an absolute inferno,” says Robin Bolton, who says she was there to witness the blaze.
Capt. Jamie Phillips, incident commander for the Lafayette County Fire Department, says that much of the building was already engulfed in flames when they arrived at about 11:04 p.m.
“Pictures never do anything justice,” Capt. Phillips says. “It was a lot of fire and a lot of heat when we first arrived on scene.”
Capt. Phillips says that while firefighters tried to knock down the blaze from the outside, he sent a team of eight inside to fight the fire in the attic.
“We started to see fire coming out the tongue of the roof, which let me know the fire suddenly jumped behind us,” he says. “Once we started pulling guys out, shortly after that we started having a collapse in there.”
According to the church, construction on the sanctuary began in 1844, making it the oldest Presbyterian structure in North Mississippi. The fire department says it is a total loss.
The church was still smoldering Sunday morning when the congregation arrived. They held services in their nearby church offices.
“It was just disheartening to drive up and to see the smoldering fire,” says Jack Griffith, who has attended church at College Hill Presbyterian for nearly seven years. “It takes your breath away. It was awful.”
“I was born and raised here,” says member Jennifer McGonagill. “I was christened, joined the church here and was married here.”
Bolton was also married inside the church and remembers saying a prayer as the flames rose higher into the night sky.
“And I was praying, ‘Lord, could you just preserve something from this for the people, please,'” she says.
Whether by coincidence or miracle, crews did end up salvaging something from the burning church.
“As the tech team was going in, it got passed along from a member outside the gate, I’m assuming a member of the church, they had an old Bible on the pulpit,” Capt. Phillips says. “Once (Capt. Casey Henderson) made an entry, his team went past it and he grabbed it.”
The original pulpit Bible is reportedly almost as old as the church itself.
“There is no explanation for how a Bible that is made of tissue paper could survive that heat,” Bolton says.
The Lafayette County Fire Department says they had about 25 firefighters on scene as well as seven members assisting from the Oxford Fire Department. No one was injured.
They expect the investigation into the cause of the fire will take several weeks.