On Sunday, April 18, 2021, the Cape Girardeau Missouri Stake center was consumed by fire.
For the following year, members of the Cape Girardeau Ward in southeast Missouri have been without a permanent home — but the love and support they’ve received from other faiths, and the miracles they’ve seen along the way, have strengthened their ward and increased their resilience.
And now, as they near the one year mark of the fire, the members are hopeful construction can begin soon on a new meetinghouse, so they can invite their neighbors to come and see it — and have a permanent place to call home.
Watching the church burn
Word spread quickly through the neighborhood that evening of April 18 — the church was on fire.
The smoke seemed small at first, but the flames grew, and the water pressure wasn’t enough. The flames started to reach the sky. Soon a crowd had gathered. They couldn’t believe what was happening.
“We stood in the parking lot and watched the church burn, and there were a lot of tears,” remembered Bishop John Fulton, bishop of the Cape Girardeau Ward. “Even the neighborhood came and said what a great influence the church had been on them.”
Among the crowd watching the fire was a woman who told Bishop Fulton she was a recovering drug addict. During her struggles, she said, she would go sit outside the building doors and feel comfort.
Cape Girardeau Stake President Kevin Dickson, who is also a member of the Cape Girardeau Ward, heard stories from others who came to watch and mourn: “The building really meant a lot to many of the neighbors. It was really important to them that the building was there. They felt a connection to it, even though they weren’t members.”
Investigators determined that the fire was intentionally set. The next day, prosecutors charged a 45-year-old man with a hate crime and arson. News reports said he had been homeless for two years and suffered from mental illness.
But while the criminal case moves forward, the ward and stake have worked hard to focus on unity and rebuilding, instead of dwelling on the past.
“This was a unifying thing,” emphasized Bishop Fulton.
An outpouring of support from other churches
April 18 was Bishop Fulton’s first full Sunday as the new bishop. Hours before the fire, he felt impressed to tell the ward members they needed to be more visible than they were in the greater community around southeast Missouri.
“And now we ARE more visible in the community than we were,” said Bishop Fulton, although it happened in a much different way than anyone imagined. The fire thrust the Church in the area into the news and into the spotlight.
Many other faiths immediately reached out to express condolences and offer support. President Dickson said many asked early on if they could help with raising funds for a new building.
“We told them, no, but if you want to do something, we have Latter-day Saint Charities, and these humanitarian efforts from the Church,” said President Dickson.
Bishop Fulton said around 20 churches kindly reached out to him offering to let the ward use their buildings: “They were willing to change their schedules to fit ours. But none of them were large enough. We average 180-190 people in sacrament meeting, and none were large enough. A funeral home offered their building to use whenever and however, but it’s just too small.”
Bishop Fulton said his first counselor serves on the ministerial alliance of Jackson, Missouri, “and they are constantly asking us what we need and how they can help.”
The ward was able to use different church buildings for some activities, like seminary graduation about a month after the fire. President Dickson said his wife, Brynda Dickson, knew some people at Abbey Road Christian Church. “It was a wonderful experience and it was super kind of them to say, ‘Here’s the key, the place is yours.’”
And ward activities for Christmas and Memorial Day were held at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. President Dickson pointed out that the closest Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in the stake is 45 minutes away and too small to house the Cape Girardeau Ward, let alone meetings for the whole Cape Girardeau Stake.
“Bishop Fulton only had a regular church building for that very first Sunday,” said President Dickson. “The rest of his time has been migrating around various spaces, and now the temporary facility while the new chapel is being built.”
From place to place
The Sunday after the fire, April 25, the ward was able to rent a couple of rooms and meet inside the Osage Community Center in Cape Girardeau.
“We brought the Saints together to talk about the loss and to talk about moving forward,” said President Dickson. “It was a wonderful day. The whole stake presidency was in attendance to give support as well as the local leaders in the ward.”
They determined they could keep renting rooms in the Osage Center on Sundays for the time being. But it was a tight fit: “Imagine 30, 40, 50 Primary children all in one room and the only thing separating them are cloth dividers only a few feet tall,” said Bishop Fulton.
And the ward has 40 active youth, which is a large group for Missouri, said Bishop Fulton. But the youth and adults all had to meet in the same room for the second hour. Ward leaders hauled in and out a portable sound system, little plastic electric keyboard piano and all their supplies each Sunday.
“It was all kind of wonderful what we did every week to get ready and then put it all away again — and no one complained about anything. We were happy to have a place,” said Bishop Fulton.
Cape Girardeau’s city recreation division manager, Penny Williams, told the Church News her feelings about that time:
“It was our honor and privilege to be the host facility for the services held by the Latter-day Saints after the unfortunate situation they were in,” she wrote. “Our thoughts and well wishes are with the entire congregation as they move to their permanent home.”
Then, after a few months, the Church worked with Southeast Missouri State University to use a few more rooms on that campus. The ward met at the university for two to three months. The sound system was much better for sacrament meeting, and the Primary, youth and adults each had classrooms in which to meet.
But things were still difficult, explained President Dickson: “I can’t even explain to anyone who hasn’t done it, how hard it is to not have a building. Every time you think about anything, and you say, ‘We should do this,’ it’s, ‘OK, where?’ You can never assume there’s a location. And we did that from April to December.”
The ward council had to meet at Bishop Fulton’s home. He was holding interviews either at his home or at the park or anywhere he could find. The youth met outside on Wednesday nights when the weather cooperated. Other times they met in members’ homes. Seminary classes were held in members’ homes for a time, as well, before using a rented room at the Osage Center.
Because the meetinghouse was also the stake center, the Cape Girardeau Stake also lost a place for stake meetings. Stake conference was moved to Drury Plaza Conference Center downtown for fall 2021.
President Dickson said about that time: “You cannot appreciate that, when you haven’t ever lived in the situation we’ve been through. You can’t appreciate how important it is to have a place.”
The miracle of reactivation
Members of the ward drew closer because of the fire. Some had not been attending because of the COVID-19 pandemic; others had become inactive. But they felt a need to be together after the tragedy.
“I want to say we had around 280 people in attendance,” said President Dickson about sacrament meeting on the first Sunday after the fire. “A lot of people that day we saw who we have not seen at church for years. It was wonderful to see some of those people at church.”
Bishop Fulton said people filled up the room, and people had to keep going to get more and more chairs. And they have kept attending since then.
“People are coming to church and they are digging in and working and getting involved,” he said. “It’s been exactly what you would expect from people who are recovering from challenges. They are redoubling their efforts and want to make a difference.”
President Dickson spoke about a family who came back to church after the fire in April, and continued to attend and serve regularly. The wife received a new calling. In early November, the husband and father passed away from COVID-19.
“Had it not been for the fire, they would not have been back at church,” said President Dickson. “That spiritual strength they gained from being back in church I know had an impact with the challenge of losing him in a rapid way, and at a younger age than anticipated.”
The miracle of the scriptures
While the fire grew that night of April 18, high school seminary students grew increasingly worried about their scriptures inside the church building. A large group of students would meet at the building every morning for seminary. And many of them kept a set of scriptures inside a wooden cabinet.
Fire officials declared the building a total loss. No one was allowed inside until the investigation finished. But when others were finally allowed in, they discovered a miracle — the cabinet with those seminary scriptures inside had been preserved. Everything around the cabinet was charred, but the cabinet itself was intact.
The scriptures were pulled from the cabinet, and reunited with their owners. But the books had a smoky smell. Later, when the news reached President Steven G. Lund, Young Men general president, he arranged to have a new set of scriptures delivered to each of those seminary students with their names engraved on the cover.
“It strengthened the youth,” said Bishop Fulton. “Since the fire, the consistency of seminary attendance has risen. We have more of the in-person seminary students attending every day on a consistent basis, and they are getting there more on time.”
A new home
President Dickson said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles went to the St. Louis area for a leadership conference in August 2021, and while Elder Holland was there, he learned more from Cape Girardeau Stake leaders about the fire, losing the building and the challenges since then.
President Dickson shared Elder Holland’s message first with the ward and then later in the Saturday evening session of stake conference. “When we showed the video, it was really neat to hear the members saying, ‘I feel like we are not forgotten.’ ‘I feel like they care’ and ‘They know we are here,’” said President Dickson.
Finally, at the end of 2021, the ward members found a new place to meet and worship while they wait for a new chapel to be built. On Sunday, Dec. 26, the ward moved into the space formerly occupied by Metro Business College.
Bishop Fulton said it has been a wonderful blessing to finally have a large room for sacrament meeting, larger classrooms and enough of them, and places for interviews and meetings. The Primary president doesn’t have to bring everything in and out every Sunday. The seminary students can leave their scriptures in their new closet.
The bishop said the members have felt more peace since December at their new home, with a space that fits their needs and having the consistency of meeting in the same space each Sunday.
And they will be delighted when some day they will be in their new chapel and have a place to permanently call their own. But he also knows a ward is more than a building, it’s more than a place — it’s the people. And they are pressing forward with faith.
“Early on, we kept thinking, we can’t do this ‘because of,’ but it became we can do this ‘despite of’ not having a building,” said Bishop Fulton.
That first sacrament meeting in their new — but still temporary — home, President Dickson spoke to the Cape Girardeau Ward again.
“I remember feeling impressed to talk to them about how there have been many Saints who have not had a place,” he said as he fought through his emotions. “We talked through that. Also now that we have this place, this isn’t our goal, this is where we are now and we are moving toward the next thing,” a new chapel.
“People told me, I really needed to hear that and be reminded that Saints both anciently and in modern times have been without an actual place to meet in,” said President Dickson.
While construction hasn’t yet begun, the new chapel will have an open house when it is completed. Members of the ward and stake will invite their neighbors. Those neighbors and the other faiths who reached out after the fire have been asking when the new meetinghouse will be finished. They want to see it and celebrate with the Saints, said President Dickson and Bishop Fulton.
“People adapted and have done wonderfully,” said Bishop Fulton. “And we can’t wait for our new building.”