After a fire burned an Oklahoma meetinghouse, the community stepped in to help

In the weeks since Altus (Oklahoma) Ward Bishop John “Johnny” Barron spent a Sunday morning not in meetings but watching a fire burn the meetinghouse, he’s seen and felt the support of the local community.  

“I’ve been super impressed with the outpouring of support from the community,” Bishop Barron said of the response to the Sunday, Jan. 31, fire. “We had eight different places offering space for us — four of them are churches.

“And then there are people who have reached to me and said that we’ve prayed for you in church. People have asked how they can donate to our building fund. It’s just touching to see how the community takes this personally …. and sees our church as part of the community.”  

A fire burns the Altus Ward building in Altus, Oklahoma, on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021.
A fire burns the Altus Ward building in Altus, Oklahoma, on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. Credit: John Barron

Early Sunday morning, Jan. 31, no one was in the building. Bishop Barron received a call a little after 7 a.m. from the police department telling him his church was on fire.

“I just watched the building burn and cried about it,” Bishop Barron said. “They poured water on the building for eight hours.” 

“We were really touched with how the firemen were trying to salvage what they could from the building,” Bishop Barron said.  

Where they could in the hallways, the firefighters took the art that hadn’t been burned and laid them out on the grass, he said.  

One painting of the Savior in Gethsemane that was hanging in the bishop’s office had burn marks around the frame but the art wasn’t damaged. There are plans to present it to the fire department’s chaplain once the weather clears to have the event outdoors.  

Also, there was a U.S. flag that was folded in the clerks’ office that the firefighters took, cleaned and returned.  

“We just appreciate everything they did,” Barron said of the firefighters. 

A clock in the Altus Ward building was damaged during a fire on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, in Altus, Oklahoma.
A clock in the Altus Ward building was damaged during a fire on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, in Altus, Oklahoma. Credit: John Barron

The cause of the fire was electrical and started at the wall outlet in the front lobby, said Bishop Barron, who is the city’s public works director and city engineer. 

Of the eight places that offered space, the ward council decided on Grace United  Methodist Church and a local event center to try out for a week. Then, the ward council members will meet again to decide which the ward will meet in. 

Bishop Barron said one way the ward has built relationships with the Methodist church members and other churches is through the local group of Church Women United, which sponsors community service projects.  

The Altus Ward building was built in the early to mid-1970s as a Phase 1 building. Since then, there have been two expansions, the most recent in 1996, Bishop Barron said. The ward covers five counties in southwestern Oklahoma and includes Altus Air Force Base.  

“You have so many memories,” said longtime ward member Patsy Rivera, 81, who remembers the branch meeting in a rented building before the church meetinghouse was built. “You make friends, and I was a Young Women president for years. You just have so many memories from there and you’re heartbroken.” 

When the Altus Ward started in-person Sunday meetings at the end of last summer, half of the ward was alternating attending in the building with a virtual option for members to watch from home. Recently, missionaries had been teaching English classes twice a week and youth activities had been held periodically.  

Bishop Barron has been working with area leaders on moving forward with rebuilding the meetinghouse. 

Ward members have started salvaging bricks from the building and have collected about 600 they hope can be used, such as in a patio, with the next building.  

“We wanted to have something to remember the original building,” Bishop Barron said.

Correction: A previous version of this article reported the fire was on Feb. 1. The fire was on Sunday, Jan. 31.