EAST ST. LOUIS • An enormous white stone and redbrick church became a cauldron of flames here Saturday night, destroying a house of worship that had served generations.
Built in 1894 at North 25th Street and Ridge Avenue, it was St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church before Christ Redeemed Missionary Baptist Church took over in 1978.
“This was a centerpiece for God’s work in the neighborhood,” said the Rev. Dewitt Rhodes, 90, standing beside the smoldering remains Sunday afternoon, dressed in a suit and tie.
At its prime, he said, the flock was 250. One week ago, there were 40 or 50 people in attendance.
East St. Louis Fire Chief Jason Blackmon said the first call went out about 7 p.m. Saturday. He said the fire started in the back of the building and eventually engulfed the whole structure. The cause was unknown.
“It was almost like a big warehouse fire,” Blackmon said. “It was an old church that had been around for years.”
He said it took about five hours to get control of the blaze, with the help of fire departments from St. Louis, Washington Park and Fairmont City. One firefighter was treated on the scene for smoke inhalation. Other than that, Blackmon said, there were no injuries.
Debris and ash rained down on the neighborhood, concerning people such as James Pirtle, whose uncle opened an ice cream parlor across from the church in 1963.
“It’s very unfortunate,” said Pirtle, scooping ice cream on Sunday as a steady stream of onlookers parked nearby to take photographs of the smoking ruins.
Kenya Rainey, 42, had tears going down her cheeks. As a child, her family would go to church and get ice cream afterward.
“We were raised in the church,” she said. “These are childhood memories. My entire family went to that church.”
The memories will remain. But gone are the instruments, tall stained-glass windows, altar and steeple with a cross on top that crashed in flames.
“There are churches here that are boarded up,” said Will Adams, 59, who runs a car lot in East St. Louis. “This church here is one of the remaining historical churches that was still functioning.”
There is a network of more than 100 African-American churches in East St. Louis, arguably the only institutions that haven’t failed the city.
Still, Rhodes stood next to Christ Redeemed on Sunday, with his signature smile.
“I am looking forward to the future,” he said.
The Navy veteran said surviving storms and battle during World War II still helps put his life and work in perspective.
“I am blessed,” he said, adding that his children became preachers and evangelists.
Vincent Rhodes, 34, wasn’t surprised by his grandfather’s attitude. “He’s seen a lot. He’s a man of great faith. To still be standing at 90 is a blessing, not to mention preaching.”
The congregation hopes to rebuild, perhaps at the opposite corner.