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Today in the Mission Yearbook

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

March 7, 2023

Firefighters fight the Dec. 23, 2018 blaze that did severe damage to Magnolia Presbyterian Church in Riverside, California. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Presbyterian Church)

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.

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.”

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

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.

The co-pastors recently 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.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Magnolia Presbyterian Church in Riverside, California

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Larry, and Inge Sthreshley, Mission Co-workers serving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Mindi Stivers, Financial Assistant, Presbyterian Women

Let us pray

O God, we thank you for the gift of breath that begins each story that we tell, and for inviting us into the living story that begins in Scripture and continues in the community of faith. Bless us with the skill and courage to tell and live out your good story in a world of need. In the name of the Great Storyteller, Jesus Christ. Amen.