After devastating fire, services return to First Congregational Church

Members of the First Congregational Church worshiped in their own sanctuary for the first time in eight months on June 4. A fire, on Sept. 30, 2016, had severely damaged it and an adjoining building. Photo: First Congregational Church of Berkeley

For the last eight months, ever since a devastating fire ripped through its sanctuary and adjacent 95-year-old Pilgrim Hall, the worshippers at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley have been nomads of sorts.

First, the 400-member church held Sunday services at Berkeley’s First Presbyterian Church on Dana Street. Then the church gatherings moved to Temple Beth-El on Oxford in North Berkeley.

But the lack of a permanent home had the opposite effect of what most expected, according to the Rev. Molly Baskette. Instead of prompting members of First Church, as it is known, to flee, the fire brought worshippers together. They had to work harder and communicate more to maintain their communal feeling, said Baskette.

“It really has brought us closer together,” she said. “This reminded us the church is the people, not the building. The unwelcome change forced upon us brought us into deeper community and resiliency.”


Baskette believes that feeling of solidarity and shared purpose will grow even stronger now that services have resumed in the completely repaired sanctuary at 2345 Channing Way.

To celebrate their return, the church on June 4 held a festive Pentecost celebration that was coupled with a grand opening. Worshippers, many dressed in red to reflect the fireof the Holy Spirit said to descend on Jesus’ disciples, gathered outside and walked together into the church, where rosebuds were sprinkled on them from the balcony. The chancel, or altar, was decorated with 80 red and orange balloons. There was lots of singing, including, for the first hymn, “Send Down the Fire.” A guest pastor, the Rev. Da Vita MacAllister gave a sermon titled “Triumph and Tragedy.”

The redone sanctuary in the First Congregational Church of Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The sanctuary, always gorgeous, looks better than ever. The First Congregational Church’s insurance company paid for the $1.2 million repairs, said Baskette. Community members donated another $17,000 in a GoFundMe campaign. The ceiling was replastered, the floors redone, and the pews recovered.

The future of Pilgrim Hall is still undecided, however. The church will hold a meeting Saturday June 10, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to talk about future possible uses for the historic brick structure.

While the insurance company’s payout will help pay for much of the reconstruction of Pilgrim Hall, the community will probably launch a capital campaign so it can make the hall even better, said Baskette.

The fire consuming Pilgrim Hall at the First Congregational Church on Sept. 30, 2016. Photo: Ted Friedman

The church was badly damaged on Sept. 30 when a fire broke out on the roof around 12:30 p.m. The flames were sparked by construction work, said Baskette.

The flames spread rapidly and was soon a three-alarm fire. Huge billows of white and black smoke, as well as orange flames, could be seen coming out of the building.

The Berkeley Fire Department had the fire under control by 3:20 p.m. However, in the course of the fire, one firefighter medic had to call a mayday alert because he found himself alone on the third floor with flames advancing and no way to get out. He was rescued, unharmed, when he climbed down a ladder.

But the event was a serious one and the Berkeley Fire Department did an analysis and report on what happened. Essentially, conditions on the third floor changed from normal to deadly within about seven to eight minutes, according to a video produced about the fire. The Fire Department put out a call for all firefighters to abandon the building because conditions were so dire.

One firefighter medic, Raven Record, found himself far from an exit and unable to see because of the smoke. He felt his way to a window.

“I couldn’t see more than six inches in front of my face,” Record said on the video. “My oxygen was running low.”

After he opened the window and removed his face mask he tried to get the attention of his fellow firefighters by shouting. But they were too far away to hear him. He couldn’t jump because he was three stories up with a concrete staircase below him. Record eventually made a mayday call to fire dispatch, which alerted his colleagues. They brought over a ladder within seconds of the call.

After Record reached the ground he drank some water and then turned around to look at where he had been.

“I looked back to the window I had just left and it was engulfed in flames,” he said.

A photo taken in March during a post-fire clean-up at Pilgrim Hall shows the extent of the damage caused by the Sept. 30, 2016 fire. Photo: First Church