The front of the church is shown the day after the fire. (FILE PHOTO)
The front page of the June 26, 1986, Brandon Sun tells the story of the fire that destroyed Central United Church. (FILE PHOTO)
In October 1986, Robert MacPherson examines the contents of the box that was sealed into the cornerstone of the Central United Church on May 10, 1901. (FILE PHOTO)
The new Central United Church is shown under construction in November 1987. (FILE PHOTO)
Ed Polnick, who was Brandon’s fire chief when Central United burned, is shown in a 1987 photo. (FILE PHOTO)
Central United’s new organ is shown shortly before the first services in September 1988. (FILE PHOTO)
About 1,000 parishioners attended a service in the new Central United Church on Sept. 25, 1988. (FILE PHOTO)
Central United Church is seen on Eighth Street on Friday. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)
From a brooding, cloud-filled sky in the early hours of a warm summer morning came a flash of lightning that split a church bell tower reaching for the heavens.
The strike ricocheted and blasted a hole through the roof of the Central United Church, sparking a catastrophic fire on June 26, 1986, that claimed the 85-year-old Brandon landmark and most of its contents.
Some 30 firefighters that day were up against the fastest spreading blaze the fire chief had ever seen.
After a battle that lasted well into the evening, the last of the smouldering embers in the ruins were doused.
What was left was a brick and stone shell.
The Central United Church was gone.
The congregation, made up of close to 1,300 families, spent the following two years as a nomadic group, worshipping wherever they could — the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium, the Keystone Centre and the First Baptist Church.
Following that time of fierce fundraising and countless hours of hard work, the second chapter of the congregation began with a $3.5-million church that rose from the ashes — the building currently standing at the corner of Eighth Street and Lorne Avenue.
Tomorrow, the church is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its reopening, with what it’s calling a family reunion. Along with displaying historical artifacts, the church is inviting everyone to join its Sunday service with special guest preacher and former minister Rev. Joan Jarvis.
The fire chief at the time, Ed Polnick — whose daughter was married in the church — said vivid memories of the blaze started rushing back to him as he spoke about that day 27 years ago.
"People were crying on the curb, right from the heart," he said from his home in Nanaimo, B.C., where he retired to following his lengthy career in Brandon. "I was going around the next day and I was putting my arms around some of the people and they were just sobbing."
While certainly not the biggest fire Brandon has witnessed, the speed of the church fire was nothing Polnick had ever seen before, with large flames and billowing smoke ravaging through the old, dry wood.
"The rapid spread of that fire was unbelievable," he said. "We were afraid the fire would get out of control and wipe out the whole block." Surrounding buildings, including a nearby care home, were evacuated during the fire.
Just a few days following the blaze, firefighters returned to the site to retrieve shards of stained glass windows that had blown out due to the heat. They were later fashioned into ornamental birds. Polnick still has his on display in his home.
"It’s just gorgeous," he said. "I had about a dozen made that I have given to friends and people that I knew that belonged to that church."
The current building has several winks and nods to the fallen structure. The limestone base and some freestanding archways were marked, kept and reinstalled in the new building.
A shuttered church in Winnipeg sold its pews and pipe organ to Central. They were stored at the Brandon Correctional Centre until the new building was complete.
However, the brick from the walls wasn’t usable because the heat of the fire caused it to crumble.
Lifelong church member Karen Elves, 62, played a large role in the two-year reconstruction process, which saw overwhelming feedback from the city.
"It was amazing, amazing, how the community came forward with offers of storage and assistance and worship space," Elves said. "Everyone stepped up.
"Anything that could be saved and reused, we hoped a lot more could have been utilized."
In 1880 — shortly before Brandon’s incorporation — a Presbyterian minister preached to a small congregation in a tent on the prairie just outside the eventual town limits. The congregation moved into town the next year when a church official came to town and held the church’s first official sermon in a store on Sixth Street.
A small frame church called Brandon Presbyterian was erected in 1882 on the church’s present site, but the congregation soon outgrew the structure. Prominent architect Walter Shillinglaw was recruited to draw plans for the new church.
Construction began in July 1900 at the corner of Eighth Street and Lorne Avenue, and St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church was completed in January 1901 at a cost of $35,000. In 1963, the property was worth an estimated $420,000.
After an amalgamation of two churches in Kemnay and Brandon, the church changed its name to Central United in 1969.
Current minister Lydia Glawson, another member who remembers the gutted landmark, tried to tell herself that "the church is not the building, it’s the people."
"But just the sight of that burnt-out shell ... you’re losing the tradition, you’re losing the memories, the connections with people. Even though it’s just a building, it represents the community that’s been there for all those years and the ties that bind you together.
"It was quite a shock to see it gone."
During the first sermon in the new and overcrowded church on Sept. 25, 1988, Rev. Bob Rowlands spoke to nearly 1,000 loyal members of the congregation.
"No one but God will ever know of all the sweat, the labour, the dogged determination that has brought us to this day. So many have worked so hard to make all this possible," he said from the lectern.
"We would not be here today if other Christians in other congregations, in other denominations, had not reached out to us in our need and given us a helping hand."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 28, 2013