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Magnolia Presbyterian Church in Riverside, California, is rising from the ashes

Historic church launches an ambitious building campaign following a fire during Advent in 2018

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Firefighters fight the Dec. 23, 2018 blaze that severely damaged Magnolia Presbyterian Church in Riverside, California. Following the pandemic, the church  launched a capital campaign to rebuild. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — For more than 140 years, Magnolia Presbyterian Church in Riverside, California, has been providing ministry in this Southern California community. The city recognized it as a historic landmark in 1973. Members cite the church’s many outreaches into the community, across the country and around the world.

“As a congregation with a heart for serving others,” church members wrote in a brief history, “we were shaken by one particular event that suddenly transformed us into a congregation in need.” On Sunday morning, Dec. 23, 2018, worshipers at Mag Pres, as it’s known, lighted four candles in its Advent wreath during worship. “Afterwards, everyone met for coffee fellowship and conversation. Cleanup followed, and everyone left. Unfortunately, the Advent candles continued to burn and smolder.”

That evening, firefighters were dispatched to the church, where smoke was billowing out from the front glass of its tall A-frame structure. Those battling the blaze punched holes in in the roof to allow heat and smoke to escape and broke down doors trying to get anything of value they could pull out. Later, they estimated temperatures of over 3,000 degrees inside the sanctuary during the worst of the blaze.

Magnolia Presbyterian Church’s sanctuary was a total loss. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Presbyterian Church)

The pulpit and communion table were saved, but not the baptismal font. All had been constructed by the church’s pastor emeritus, the Rev. Dr. Brad Copeland. A Christmas tree, still decorated, was also pulled outside to safety. But pews, musical instruments, sound equipment and many other items were melted and destroyed by the heat and the flames. “The fire also took with it pieces of our hearts,” members said, “as we remembered baptisms, weddings, memorial services and worship events from the past that had meant so much to us.”

On the day after the fire, Christmas Eve, church leaders including its co-pastors, the Rev. Claire Schlegel and the Rev. Paul Knopf, prayerfully decided to go ahead with the service, which was held in Mag Pres’ old sanctuary nearby. Other churches offered their help, supplying Mag Pres with chairs and luminaries to light the path from the parking lot. “With the love and support of our members and our community, we celebrated the eve of our Savior’s birth in a most meaningful way, right there in our old sanctuary,” members wrote.

Insurance helped provide air conditioning units, a sound system, ramps, improved lighting, monitor screens and other items to make the space in the old sanctuary usable. Before the pandemic began in March 2020, the church continued to do outreach “and most of the activities we had been doing before the fire,” they said. “We could feel God’s presence with us in all we were going through.”

Even as the pandemic forced Mag Pres into holding services online, the session and the church’s Buildings and Grounds Committee began working with architects, engineers and contractors to build anew. The insurance money won’t cover the entire project, and so the church of about 195 members has launched a capital campaign. The church held both a town hall meeting and a presentation by the session explaining what the new facility can offer the community. The church celebrated a groundbreaking ceremony last June. Learn more about the planned construction here and view plans for the new sanctuary here.

Last summer, Magnolia Presbyterian Church leaders celebrated a groundbreaking ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Presbyterian Church)

Last week, the co-pastors joined John Reinhardt, who’s chairing the capital campaign, to speak with Presbyterian News Service via Zoom. Mag Pres leaders were quick to acknowledge the work of Jan McKee, who serves as church historian and has been documenting the capital campaign.

“The campaign is kicking off even as we speak,” Reinhardt said, following completion and approval of the plans. However, “every time we move forward, it’s been a permit required or a pipe got cut.” This winter, the area has experienced “bigtime rain,” Reinhardt noted. “But, we’re ready to start the footings this week, then the slab and the foundation. Forty weeks from now we will have a building.”

The Rev. Paul Knopf

Knopf said the project has been designed not to exceed $2.1 million. “We’ve had to value engineer some things back,” he said, because construction costs rose precipitously during the pandemic, and inflation in general has driven up costs. “A pragmatic thing is that because it has taken us so long, construction prices are coming back down,” he said. “They’re not to pre-Covid levels, and there are still supply delays, but the contractor is now confident ordering [building] materials.”

Because Mag Pres had to spend some of its insurance settlement on holding church in the old sanctuary since the fire, the capital campaign — perhaps augmented by a loan at the mid council level or from the Presbyterian Investment & Loan Program — will be in the $1 million range. The church is still in negotiations with its insurance provider. “What a learning experience,” Knopf said, “for someone who preaches and teaches.”

Still, “after four years of walking past an empty lot, there is renewed excitement,” Knopf said, despite the fact that “not everyone is going to agree with every aspect” of the planned construction.” In their presentation to the congregation, session members mentioned more than once, “we can’t all get what we want.”

The Rev. Claire Schlegel

The plan calls for a sanctuary designed for flexible use. “Our hope is that we will be able to reach out more, to provide space the community can use. That’s why session decided to go with the multipurpose design,” said Schlegel, who plans to retire from ministry a few months before the construction is complete. “It’s a little unique in our area, especially a Presbyterian church building a new church.”

While Schlegel is sad to be retiring before Mag Pres can begin worshiping in its new space, “somebody said I’m like Moses,” she said with a grin. “You led them to the to the Promised Land, but you don’t get to enter.”

“We wanted a modern design with a nod to the traditional,” Knopf said. Perhaps the most visible design feature is an inverted roof that to some looks like an open Bible and to others like an aerial pulpit. It was Knopf’s eight-year-old son who first asked his father, “Why does the building have a Bible on top of it?”


Members and friends of Magnolia Presbyterian Church are eager to launch construction of the new multipurpose facility with its inverted roof design. (Rendering courtesy of Magnolia Presbyterian Church)

“We haven’t seen another church with an inverted roof design,” he said, although a library in nearby Newport Beach has a similar roof design.

Church leaders have reached out with intentionality and openness to explain the project to members and friends. On a video, ruling elder Brenda Flowers says that once it’s ready, “people will experience our church as inviting and a place where they want to be.”

“The feeling of being connected is part of the design” of the new worship space, said Chris Nettles, a member of the design team. Plans call for enclosed ramps to take people into the chancel as well as the use of sustainable woods and stones as building materials.

In the video, Knopf has two requests of Mag Pres members and friends.

“Download the designs and pray about them,” he suggests, adding prayers for the session, the contractor and the City of Riverside are also appreciated.

Also: breathe deeply. “This is a long process, and today is just the first step,” Knopf said, before offering these words of prayer: “God, we believe today you speak through your church. We remember you are still speaking and that this building is not for us; it is to bring you glory.”

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