Pastor of historic downtown Kansas City church destroyed by fire vows to 'move forward'

Hours after a massive fire and explosion destroyed a historic church Sunday morning just east of downtown Kansas City, a stunned congregation pondered their path ahead.

“We want our people to know that we are committed and we will move forward,” Executive Pastor John Crane said after the blaze destroyed the Evangelistic Center Church in the 1000 block of Truman Road. He vowed the congregation would find a place to worship in the months to come.

Early Sunday evening, worshippers gathered for a prayer vigil at the Nieman Elementary School, 10917 W. 67th St. in Shawnee. Congregants greeted each other with smiles and hugs. Tears flowed as the music preceding the prayer service played.

“It is well with my soul! It is well, it is well with my soul,” the congregation sang with their hands stretched upward to shouts of “Hallelujah and glory to God!”

Crane encouraged members to seek God’s comfort and refuge.

“All things work together for the good,” he reminded them during a prayer. “We glorify you right in the midst of our tragedy.”

The fire was reported about 5:30 a.m. Crane said he received a phone call from the church administrator and he rushed to the scene in Kansas City.

“It was devastating to see,” said Crane, whose grandfather started the independent church more than five decades ago. “....Just watching the whole thing go up in flames, I mean it was paralyzing.”

Fire crews trained aerial hoses on the structure as flames shot into the air along Truman Road.

“When our crews got here, we saw how large the structure was,” said Deputy Chief James Garrett, a spokesman for the Kansas City Fire Department. “We were able to make entry and make an attack on the fire.”

The conditions inside the building, however, changed rapidly, forcing firefighters to retreat.

“There was an explosion before a (partial) collapse,” Garrett said. The explosion occurred about a half hour after firefighters were on the scene. Because of the danger, authorities closed roads in the area and warned people to stay at a distance from the church, which sits on the corner of the Troost Avenue and Truman Road.

The dark black smoke was visible for miles.

Nobody was inside the building at the time of the fire, and no injuries were reported.

Crane said members had been in the church on Saturday, preparing shoe boxes that would be sent to children as part of an overseas ministry headed by Franklin Graham.

Luckily, no one was inside the building when the fire erupted, he said Sunday evening.

“I can’t hold back the tears. It’s years and years. I’ve had phone calls from pastors from all over the country.

“The outpouring of people not only from our own congregation were very upset, but people that have come to our church years ago. People were just showing up in the parking lot this morning.”

The church has been located in the heart of Kansas City for more than 50 years. An annex was constructed during the early 1980s. The multiracial congregation has worked to help those in need in the surrounding neighborhoods and communities, Crane said.

“Those things can’t be replaced,” he said. “That building will never be, but the church goes on. We will continue to worship, we will continue to build and we will continue to move forward.

“But those memories are now memories. We can’t go back and see the building anymore because it’s devastating.”

The building is the former Scottish Rite Temple. According to a weekly postcard column by Mildred Ray published in The Kansas City Star in August 1977, the building was designed by architect Frank M. Howe. The temple opened on March 20, 1904, and was used by the Scottish Rite until a new temple was built in 1930 at Linwood Boulevard and the Paseo.

The Friendship Baptist Church purchased the building in 1940. Since the early 1960s, the Evangelistic Center Church has owned the property.


Courtesy of the Kansas City Public Library's Missouri Valley Special Collections

“It breaks our heart whenever you see any type of structure like this, especially the ones in general use that they are not going to get the use out of and that we weren’t able to save it,” Garrett said.

The size of the building was a big challenge for firefighters as they battled the blaze. The task was made more difficult by the age of the building.

“With the structure being so old, there is some structural stability things we have to keep in mind,” Garrett said. “That’s why you’ll see (a) collapse zone around the structure.”

Fire officials won’t know the cause of the explosion and fire until after investigators examine the scene.

Kansas City’s Fire Chief Paul Berardi streamed live video from the scene on Twitter. In the video, Berardi said that firefighters reported on the radio that they had smelled natural gas shortly before there was a concussion explosion. Berardi said in a later tweet that while he initially reported that natural gas was the potential cause of the explosion, the cause was still under investigation.

In the video, Berardi said the explosion blew debris out onto the street, narrowly missing a fire truck on the scene.

In an earlier video from the scene, Berardi mentioned that thankfully nobody was there.

A little more than a year ago, firefighters Larry J. Leggio and John V. Mesh were killed and two others hurt when a building on Independence Avenue collapsed on them.

Robert A. Cronkleton: bcronkleton@kcstar.com, 816-234-4261

Glenn E. Rice: grice@kcstar.com, 816-234-4341