Harmony Grove Church fire

Alex Lewis, of the Plumville fire department, removed crosses from the church after the blaze.

State police fire marshals said the blaze started in two locations inside Harmony Grove Lutheran Church.

“It had a lot of heavy smoke and water damage,” said Tim Steffish, first assistant chief of Creekside Volunteer Fire Company.

Steffish said the building in the Five Points area west of Willet in Washington Township was a total loss.

“The fire originated in two separate areas, the center of the basement, and first floor chancel/altar area,” said Trooper Cliff Greenfield, spokesman for the Indiana state police. “The cause is incendiary in nature.”

Greenfield said one firefighter suffered a minor injury.

Steffish said the firefighter was taken by Citizens’ Ambulance Service to Indiana Regional Medical Center, where he was treated and released.

Greenfield said the state police Troop A Fire Marshal Unit out of Greensburg was requested to investigate the origin and cause of the fire at Harmony Grove.

“It had heavy smoke coming out of the front door,” Steffish said of what volunteers encountered as they first arrived around 4 a.m.

The blaze drew companies from Commodore to Kittanning Township, bringing multiple tankers.

“It’s a rural fire, there is no water,” Steffish said.

Tankers came from Marion Center, Clymer, Coal Run, Commodore, Rural Valley, Dayton, Elderton, Plumville and Rayburn and Kittanning townships. Indiana Fire Association had its aerial truck on hand.

“It probably took a couple hours (to control),” Steffish said.

No other buildings were affected. Marion Center volunteer firefighters posted on Facebook that the fire was out by 8:30 a.m.

Greenfield said late Tuesday that the investigation of the fire continues with assistance from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We urge anyone with information to immediately contact us at (724) 357-1960,” he said.

The fire is another complication for two Lutheran congregations dating to the 19th century. Harmony Grove was established in 1870; Grove Chapel, eight miles away in Rayne Township, was founded in 1873.

The two churches have had common ties for decades, dating to before a 1988 merger of three denominations to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or the churches’ respective centennials. The Rev. David A. Wasemann was pastor of both churches until his death on Oct. 31, 2018.

“Local pastors have formed a coalition to take care of their pastoral needs,” said the Rev. Dr. Ralph E. Jones, bishop of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Five are from the Indiana cluster, including a retired pastor, while two are from the Jefferson cluster of the 15-county synod based in Pleasantville, Crawford County.

The bishop said he has tried to come to Indiana County two times a month to help.

“Both are smaller congregations for us, with 30 to 40 people attending at each,” Jones said.

Plans were in the offing for both congregations to gather at Grove Chapel Lutheran Church for Sunday’s 11 a.m. service, after which they would meet with the bishop.

Harmony Grove has survived past troubles. Four feet of water flooded the basement/social hall of the Five Points church on Sept. 17, 2004.

“We completely stripped the basement,” church council member Gerald Altmire said for a March 20, 2005, Gazette story marking completion of renovations that required $25,000 in donations. The church also needed to replace two furnaces, and had no flood insurance.

A neighboring pastor in the Indiana cluster, the Rev. Stephen Bond of New Life Lutheran Church in Marion Center and Hope Lutheran Church in Homer City, went to social media to seek prayer for Harmony Grove, then offered hope later in the day on Facebook: “Today seems a good day to remember that the church is always on a journey on which God meets us in ashes and brings the light of resurrection out of our dead-ends.”