Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001 Shortly before 5 a.m. on Easter Sunday April 15, 2001, the heat sensor in the sanctuary of the San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church was activated, and the alarm transmitted to the San Luis Obispo Fire Department. Seven minutes later, fire crews arrived to find the Narthex in flames. There was no sprinkler system, and the fire went to “flashover” quickly. Everything in the building was on fire. Six fire engines and trucks and 40 rescue personnel were on site to fight a fire that took three hours to contain and at the end of the day left only a skeleton of rafters collapsing onto themselves. The church burned 39 years to the day it was consecrated on Easter April 15, 1962.
Word quickly spread by land and cell phones as members of the congregation were told “the church is on fire.” Many thought perhaps it was a small fire that could be extinguished and the building saved, but those that drove toward the church could see that it wasn’t a small fire; from miles away, plumes of thick, black smoke and tall flames were swirling into the dawning sky.
In the Wesley Building, a control center was established in the church office. While stunned parishioners, many in tears, stood watching their church burn to the ground, Senior Pastor Nelson Stringer attempted to borrow chairs from Mt. Carmel Lutheran Church so that the congregation could worship in the parking lot. Mt. Carmel’s Reverend Russ Gordon refused, saying, “No, you are not getting our chairs. You are coming to worship with us.” So as the congregation gathered in the parking lot, preparations were made to march down Fredericks Street to Mt. Carmel.
Leading the procession, Chris Cofer carried a 7-foot wooden cross. The congregation, singing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” followed Rev. Stringer and Associate Pastor Barbara Silversmith down the hill and into the sanctuary of Mt. Carmel. It was “standing room only” as over 350 Lutherans and Methodists worshiped together, celebrating the Resurrection and the glory of Easter. That afternoon, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, District Superintendent Richard Garner and ministers from all of the cluster churches arrived in San Luis Obispo to be with the congregation as they again gathered in the evening for consolation and worship.
In the days following the fire, a Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm investigation team from Los Angeles and an FBI team from Santa Maria were on site. Using a dog trained to detect accelerants, it was determined that the fire was the work of an arsonist. To date, no one has been charged with this crime.
Not much was saved from the burned rubble: a bell used by the Bell Choir and a candle holder in the shape of a dove. In the lower level of the church, the cement roof and walls protected the ministerial and choir robes from the flames. The choir wears those robes today. Cluster churches donated hymnals, Bibles and a pulpit to be used in the Wesley Building where the congregation has been worshiping and carrying out its mission and ministry for the past seven years.