VIDEO: Calvin Community Chapel destroyed in fire, but walls still stand

CALVIN TOWNSHIP — For 92 years, the walls of Calvin Community Chapel, 18770 Mount Zion St., Cassopolis, have stood as a reminder of a solid foundation built by a community of faithful farmers.

The iconic cobblestone walls, built in the late 1920s, are comprised of stone pulled from Cass County farmland by the church’s founders. Though rocks are a farmer’s worst nightmare in the field, stones proved to be a solid solution when erecting a lasting structure.

Early Friday morning, as firefighters from several departments battled a blaze suspected to have been started by lightning, the chapel’s roof crumbled. Windows were blown out. Furniture was reduced to rubble and the structure was filled with ash.

The stone walls, however, stood strong.

Linda Mourning, a lifelong member of the church, said the walls are a reflection of her church’s faith.

“It says that Christ is the solid rock on which I stand,” she said. “We built upon the rock — and it’s still standing.”

Rev. Russell Haines, a 1979 Ross Beatty High School graduate, has pastored for Calvin Community Chapel for 16 years. When he received the call around 4 a.m. Saturday that his church was in flames, he said his heart broke.

“All the time while my wife and I were driving to the church, we were quiet. We weren’t saying a word,” he said. “We were both trying to get our hearts and minds ready for the sight we were about to see.”

Holding his wife’s hand as he turned onto Mount Zion Street, the couple braced themselves for the impact.

“It was just surreal. It looked like a bomb had gone off,” he said. “As I walked up the stairs and looked into what use to be the sanctuary, all I could do is shake my head. I couldn’t utter a word.”

As he dealt with the initial grief, Haines said he forced himself to think of the positive memories had in the chapel.

“I had to recall upon all of the love, all of the laughter and joyous times that I experienced in that church,” he said, recalling memories of baptisms, weddings and dedications.

Longtime member Goldie King, 72, of Calvin Township, was moved to tears Sunday afternoon as she recalled fond memories growing up in the rural church.

“This is a tremendous loss — a lot of memories,” she said through tears. “It is devastating for everyone concerned.”

King and Mourning each recalled grove parties that drew fellow Christians from as far as Detroit and Chicago to the church. On social media throughout the weekend, former and current members shared memories of picnics and dinners they helped to put on for the visiting churches, countless weddings and a “true family atmosphere.”

Sunday morning, a hush fell over the chapel, empty of worshipers due to the blaze. Meanwhile, Haines shared a virtual sermon with Calvin Community Chapel members.

“The message in summation that I gave to the church is that we don’t know the reason why God allowed lightning to strike the church, but the scenario I proposed is that we may be serving as an example to somebody,” he said. “If we can go through a loss like this and through the grace and mercy of God rebuild, maybe they will take a cue from that and think if [the church] can rebuild, then the same God that [the church has] that faith and trust in, I’m going to call on that God and rebuild that life as well.”

In the days since the fire, Haines said he has been moved by the amount of support he has received.

“The biggest message that I would like to share with the community as a whole is a giant thank you to one and all,” he said. “We have been contacted with an outpouring of love from various pastors, various churches so numerous that I would not be able to name. Churches have lovingly offered their services, their sanctuaries to us.”

Haines asked that the community keep Calvin Community Chapel and its members in their prayers.

In the coming days, Haines will host a church meeting to determine plans to rebuild.

“It was never within us to say we are going to abandon the old church and rebuild,” he said. “We must rebuild because we believe that’s what God would have for us to do.”

Though the loss has been described repeatedly as “devastating” to the community, Haines praised the building that has been a house of faith for nearly a century.

“The quality of workmanship that went into it — and a testament of it and the faith — is that no matter what a person goes through, if your faith is strong,” he said, “even when you don’t feel like going on, you still have something that you can fall back upon.”

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