Congregation rallies around Allentown church after fire

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The smell of smoke still lingered at the Hilltop United Methodist Church Friday afternoon, and it was clear even from the street that the top of the old, brick building was charred.

But spirits remained high as church leaders focused on how to move forward, and others in the community offered to help in any way they could.

The owner of the James J. Barry Funeral Home across the street offered her building for Sunday services. Workers at the Henry Kauffman Center opened their door to people who normally visit the senior center inside the church for lunch and other activities, said City Councilman Bruce Kraus.

It was a fitting way, some said, to support a church that is much a place for the community to gather as it is a place of worship.

“It goes far beyond just being bricks and mortar,” Mr. Kraus said. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t affiliate the Hilltop United Methodist Church with the neighborhood of Allentown.”

This year, the church hosted gatherings for the National Night Out, an event aimed at improving the relationship between police and residents. Members of a local Allentown community development group hold meetings there as does the occasional political group, said the Rev. Sue Hutchins.

Councilman Kraus attended a meeting there on best practice for community leaders about a decade ago, when he was first researching whether to run for office.

“This church has always had a heart for the community,” Rev. Hutchins said.

For Barb Ehrlich, the church holds many memories. She was baptized there and married there. Her children and grandchild were baptized there. And, of course, it was the site of Sunday services.

Another woman stopped by Friday who had been baptized at the church but hadn’t been back in a long time.

“She just came because of the history,” Rev. Hutchins said.

Church leaders think the brick building was built on East Warrington Avenue in the late 1800’s, Rev. Hutchins said. As the area changed, so too did the church. As congregations merged, the building changed names.

“I tease them that it has more names than Elizabeth Taylor,” Rev. Hutchins said.

Firefighters saved some staples of the church, including a communion table, a cross and a lectern. The rebuilding process will take time. Both the fire and water damage from fighting it prompted city officials to place a “conservative estimate” of damages Friday at $1.5 million.

City officials also confirmed Friday what they suspected the night before — the three-alarm fire Thursday evening was “caused by workers who were using propane torches to repair the roof and gutters.”

Workers at Ripley & Sons Construction, which was working on the roof when the fire began, could not be reached Friday.

But Mr. Kraus said workers at the scene Friday gave him hope that the building can be salvaged. Rev. Hutchins spent her afternoon meeting with building inspectors and workers from a restoration and insurance companies.

“It’s one step at a time,” she said, “and it’s going to be a long journey.”

Liz Navratil:, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.

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