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Rochester church that was victim of arson says its prayer is for whoever lit the fire

A little less than a month after a fire was started at Peace United Church of Christ, church leaders and others gathered Thursday, May 12, 2022, to reflect on the fire, speak about the damage it caused and look toward the church’s future.

Two chairs, melted by a fire, sit against a smoke blackened wall. In the background, a door is open to an office that looks relatively untouched by fire and smoke.
Burned chairs sit in the lower level of Peace United Church of Christ,1503 Second Ave. NE, after a fire was set on April 18, 2022.
Emily Cutts / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — On Easter, Peace United Church of Christ’s theme was “hope grows here.”

Just a few days later, that message took on a new meaning as the congregation was faced with a devastating fire that caused millions of dollars in damage.

A little less than a month later, church leaders and others gathered Thursday, May 12, 2022, to reflect on the fire, speak about the damage it caused and look toward the church’s future. Although the fire caused an estimated $2.5 million in damage, the congregation did not miss a Sunday in its sanctuary.

Listos Preschool and Childcare Director Christina Valdez said Friday, May 13, 2022, that without the temporary space at Mount Olive Church that the center would have likely closed.

“It was so powerful to be able to come back into this place,” the Rev. Paul Bauch said. “When we came back on that Sunday, after the fire, it was like new life. We're in the resurrection spirit and I truly just felt like this restoration was beginning right away. So I’m very thankful for that.”

Rochester firefighters were called to the church, 1503 Second Ave. NE, in the early morning hours of April 18, 2022, in response to a fire alarm.

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A hallway that was once light tan is now black after a fire was lit in the lower level of Peace United Church of Christ,1503 Second Ave. NE, after a fire was set on April 18, 2022.
Emily Cutts / Post Bulletin

They found a large amount of black smoke and a fire in the building’s downstairs level between Listos Preschool and Childcare and the sanctuary. No injuries were reported.

“We just came off COVID and we were ready to get going again and then the fire came along,” said Bauch. “And it didn't derail us by any means but it kind of made us step back once again, and reshape what our ministry is going to look like coming up.”

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The fire department said shortly after the fire that while fire damage was limited, smoke caused significant damage in the areas immediately adjacent to the fire. Nearly all parts of the large church and Listos preschool had some smoke exposure.

In addition to being home to the preschool, the church building regularly hosts several community groups, including the Rochester Male Chorus and a weekly bluegrass night.

Church Administrator Debby Adams said the preschool lost everything and is currently being housed at Mount Olive Church.

Walls that were once light tan are now pitch black — covered in soot from the fire that evaded some fire doors and jumped through ceiling tiles to ravage areas that held the church’s sheet music collection and the preschool’s offices.

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The aftermath of a fire that was set on the lower level of Peace United Church of Christ,1503 Second Ave. NE, on April 18, 2022.
Emily Cutts / Post Bulletin

A collection of canned foods, once on a table for families in need, were now piled on the floor. Emergency exit signs had been transformed into Rorschach tests of hard melted plastic on the floor.

By contrast, the south side of the building bore few physical signs of a fire. The smell of smoke, overpowering on the north side and in the lower level, was faint enough that the congregation was able to hold services in its sanctuary the Sunday after the fire.

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The north side of the building will need to be completely redone, including replacing the studs, while the south side will have its so-called soft features, such as carpet, replaced and walls repainted.

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Rev. Paul Bauch gives a tour of the fire damage the Peace United Church of Christ,1503 Second Ave. NE, after a fire was set on April 18, 2022.
Emily Cutts / Post Bulletin

The renovation of the building, which is being handled by Knutson Construction, is scheduled to be completed by Easter 2023, according to Project Manager Jeremy Schrimpf.

On May 9, the Rochester Police and Fire Departments announced that the fire was a result of arson. Rochester Police Sgt. Tony Teal did not elaborate on what investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or fire marshal’s office found to lead them to that conclusion. The investigation is ongoing.

“Our church’s prayer is for whoever did this,” Bauch said. “We want this person, whatever happened, to get help along the way. And that's our primary purpose. We just want to make sure that it doesn't happen again. We don't want anybody to be hurt or another facility to go through what we've gone through here.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact Rochester police investigator Todd Schwanke at 507-328-2894 or tschwanke@rochestermn.gov . Tips can also be shared anonymously through Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS, or the Arson Hotline at 1-800-723-2020.

ChurchFire03.jpg
Boxes of sheet music sit in a room in the lower level of Peace United Church of Christ,1503 Second Ave. NE, after a fire was set on April 18, 2022.
Emily Cutts / Post Bulletin
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A room on the lower level of Peace United Church of Christ,1503 Second Ave. NE, that was damaged after a fire was set on April 18, 2022.
Emily Cutts / Post Bulletin

Emily Cutts is the Post Bulletin's public safety reporter. She joined the Post Bulletin in July 2018 after stints in Vermont and Western Massachusetts.
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