The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Community rallies to support church after fire

‘They wanted to come in and show solidarity’
The entrance to Overbrook Presbyterian Church facing City Avenue following the Jan. 15 fire. PHOTOS: MAX KELLY ’24/THE HAWK

Overbrook Presbyterian Church (OPC), a historic church about a mile and a half from St. Joe’s Hawk Hill campus, is rebuilding after a devastating fire on the night of Jan. 15 that gutted the sanctuary and caused damage to other parts of the building.

Built in 1889, the sanctuary at OPC, located at 6376 City Ave., is in the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Register of Historical Places

The fire, which originated in the sanctuary, resulted in extensive fire and smoke damage to the worship space and upper levels, making them unsafe to occupy. Fellowship Hall, the auditorium used by the congregation of over 300 members, also suffered smoke damage in addition to damage from the water used to extinguish the fire. Nobody was injured.

Sharon Parker, parish care associate, said she and pastor Adam Hearlson, Ph.D., received a call around 7:15 the night of the fire. She quickly took a ride share from her home in Center City and watched from the lawn with Hearlson.

“It was snowing that night and we just stood on the lawn,” Parker said. “We thought, ‘This is huge.’” 

Community support

The fire has since left many groups from OPC displaced, including Overbrook Preschool and Kindergarten, Bible study, adult education and choir. But throughout the renovations and recovery, other religious groups have come to OPC’s rescue. 

Windows at Overbrook Presbyterian Church were boarded following the damage resulting from the fire.

Churches of various denominations and affiliations have offered space for OPC during the restoration process. Hearlson said relocation programs and services were arranged by both outreach and receiving unprompted offers.

“We’re not worshiping in the sanctuary right now, so we have to rely on [our] neighbors and the relationships that we’ve built to find new space,” Hearlson said. “We’ve been in a lot of new spaces, and that’s been by and large incredibly positive.”

Weekly Sunday services are being held at Penn Wynne Presbyterian Church in Lower Merion, adult education has moved down the street to African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas, Bible study is at Congregation Temple Beth’El in Northwest Philadelphia and OPC’s choir is practicing at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Ardmore. 

“The first several Sundays, we saw people who perhaps haven’t been here since their young adulthood or childhood,” Parker said. “They wanted to come in and show solidarity.”

Parker said attendance for weekly services at alternate locations has since remained consistent with what it was before the fire. But Easter Sunday Mass, which took place at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, marked their greatest attendance to date, with over 300 people.

Overbrook Preschool and Kindergarten’s classrooms returned April 3 to the lower level of the building, which were less damaged. Before that, they had been at Presbyterian Church of Llanerch in Havertown. 

Hearlson said the ceiling and flooring were replaced, water damage was remediated, lighting systems were updated and the space was thoroughly cleaned before the school programs moved back on site.

“We wanted to make sure that the fire wasn’t totally disruptive to that programming,” Hearlson said. “They were displaced for about 60 days, and we worked really hard to get them back in the building.”


Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner, owner and principal of Historic Building Architects, specializes in restoring historic buildings and was hired by OPC to lead the reconstruction of the building. She said the firm is currently assessing the damage, a difficult task because unsafe materials are still being removed from the building.

“We’re in the process of trying to remove material that is in such bad shape we can’t save it, but, at the same time, balancing that with saving as much historic fabric as we can because it’s part of the roots and the story of the church,” Radcliffe-Trenner said. 

Radcliffe-Trenner said thankfully, the archives for the church were located in the lower level of the building and did not sustain damage from the fire.

Mimi Winkler, founding principal of Converse Winkler Architecture, is one of three congregation members on a task force to manage restoration efforts in conjunction with specialists. Winkler said the group has been meeting weekly with SERVPRO, a damage restoration company, to dispose of and clean materials from inside the building.

“SERVPRO showed up very quickly, and they’re pretty phenomenal with the kind of resources they can bring to undertake remediation and air filtration and cleaning things out,” Winkler said. “I guess it’s sort of like bringing in the Marines. They’ve got lots of equipment.”

Some damaged objects like pews are currently being cleaned and stored at a warehouse in New Jersey, Hearlson said.

Inside the sanctuary, the chancel is currently concealed with plywood. Ash scatters the floor and, in order to remove the ceiling, scaffolding occupies the space where the pews previously were.

The chancel inside the sanctuary at Overbrook Presbyterian Church have been covered with plywood after the fire.

Radcliffe-Trenner said due to the severe fire and smoke damage, it will be two to three years before the sanctuary is ready for worship again. She said Fellowship Hall received less damage and might be usable within a year. 

To ventilate smoke during the fire, many stained glass windows, which were originally installed in the sanctuary in 1905, were smashed by firefighters. Radcliffe-Trenner said other windows were ruined by the fire itself when the lead frames melted from the heat and the glass dropped.

Stained glass windows in the sanctuary were smashed in the process of putting out the fire Jan. 15.

Parker said that for many members of the congregation, this is a major loss.

“I think in any sanctuary space, especially for families that have been there for decades or generations, the windows take on a very special meaning,” Parker said.

Radcliffe-Trenner said while some stained glass windows can be restored, it will be expensive, and some will likely be replaced with regular glass.

“I think the costs for this are going to be huge, so they’re going to have to weigh out what they can afford to do,” Radcliffe-Trenner said. “But, the intent is to restore the major windows.”

The church is also still deciding how to replace the organ, which was specifically designed for the sanctuary, Radcliffe-Trenner said.

“There’s a lot of attachment and love of that organ and the sound it made,” Radcliffe-Trenner said.

Winkler said because the church was built so long ago, many aspects were not up to current code and ADA standards. Following the restoration, she said the building will be safer and more accessible, featuring an updated fire alarm system, exterior ramps following current structural codes and a potential addition of an elevator. 

“We’re hoping to have the whole building more accessible at the end of this for sure,” Winkler said. “That’s a high priority.” 

Funding and support 

Parker said OPC is working with an insurance adjuster, hoping insurance will cover the majority of restoration costs. However, they’ll need to turn to fundraising for accessibility measures and restoring the stained glass windows.

Over 100 years ago, a missionary from Thailand, who was raising funds for a new hospital in his home country, preached at a mass at OPC, Hearlson recalled. That missionary profoundly affected the congregation at OPC, who then donated $16,000 to start the hospital, which was named the Overbrook Hospital.

When staff at Overbrook Hospital heard about the fire at the church, they returned the favor with a $16,000 donation for restoration costs.

“When they heard about the fire, they immediately moved into action and said, ‘100 years ago, you supported us in the creation of this hospital and so we want to do the same for you,’” Hearlson recalled.

The church has received other unprompted donations but will be launching a more formal fundraising effort in the next few months, Hearlson said. 

“I’m incredibly grateful for the resilience of the congregation for the ways in which they’ve reacted, which have been overwhelmingly positive,” Hearlson said. “Everyone is sad, no one is happy that this happened. But, we’re at a place now where we’re beginning to think really intentionally about how we can do good from something terrible that has happened and that type of spirit is really welcomed.” 

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Hawk News

Your donation will support the student journalists of St. Joseph's University. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
About the Contributor
Max Kelly
Max Kelly, Website Manager/Multimedia Editor
Donate to The Hawk News

Comments (0)

All The Hawk News Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *