No home for the holiday

Times Staff Writer

With members as young as 5 and as old as 80, the Christian Life Church choir had already sung "Silent Night" and "Away in the Manger" at Wednesday night's practice in the sanctuary. They were belting out "Joy to the World" when a loud snap came from above.

Pastor Tim Manchester thought a beam had split in the attic.

The two dozen singers rushed out. By the time Manchester's wife, Cheryl, finished calling 911, flames had engulfed the roof. Just after firefighters arrived, the roof caved in, leaving two congregations homeless for Christmas. For the 80-year-old church at Montrose and Ramsdell avenues was also home to the Christ Armenian Church.

As word of the fire spread, members of both congregations turned on their televisions to see their church ablaze.

"We kind of cried out," said Joseph Housepian, a Christ Armenian board member. "It was like seeing the burning of our own house and not being able to do anything about it."

Khachatour Isagholi said his wife cried for "maybe two hours."

Several dozen members of both congregations arrived at the church early Thursday to survey the damage firsthand. They found their beloved church ringed with yellow police tape. Beefy, black-sweatshirt-clad Glendale arson inspectors combed through the remains.

White fire-extinction foam still clung to some curbs, almost like snow. A light breeze blew through the huge arched windows, now devoid of their stained glass. The thin iron cross atop the bell tower tilted at a 45-degree angle.

Church members milled on the sidewalks as if at a wake. Some cried. Some hugged. They offered words of sorrow and words of comfort. They wondered where they would go to worship, particularly with Christmas just a few days away.

"Emotionally it's heart-breaking, but the true church is composed of people, not a building," said Christ Armenian Pastor Saro Khachikian. "Buildings can be replaced but human beings are more precious than stones and bricks."

They called on Scripture for help with their pain.

"Scripture says in this life, you face many trials and tribulations, and you should cast your burdens unto the Lord," said Ava Piranian. "The challenge is not much different than our fathers faced throughout the millennia -- Abraham, Joseph, David on down through the ages."

And they recalled the good times of a church that Pastor Manchester said "oozes with memories." Martha and Kelly Cook were married there. So, too, was their daughter Vanessa.

"It's a family," Martha Cook said. "Everybody cares about each other. If someone's sick, there's food in the house. If there's a problem, everybody is praying."

When Kelly Cook had a bone-marrow transplant in 1998, nearly everyone in the church came over to help clean the house to reduce the chance of germs infecting his weakened immune system.

As Martha Cook talked, her cellphone rang with a call from a former member who had heard about the fire on the news.

"Nancy, I'm here at the church," she told her friend, now living in Utah. "It's so sad. It's totaled Nancy, it's totaled.... Don't cry, honey, it's OK," said Cook, her own voice choking with tears. "We're gonna rebuild."

A preschool run by Christian Life was also destroyed. It was in the original part of the church, built in the 1920s, about 20 years before the demolished sanctuary was built. The church's elementary school, which serves about 50 students, was not damaged.

Cook, who served as the church and school's principal administrator for several years, sewed hundreds of costumes -- George Washington outfits and Christmas angels among them -- for school and church pageants over the years. They were stored on racks in the attic and helped to fuel the blaze, said Glendale fire officials, who have ruled out arson but haven't pinpointed the cause.

Also destroyed was an antique Steinway piano in mint condition. Glendale Fire Capt. Jim Frawley estimated total damage at $3 million to the structure and $500,000 to the contents.

Most of the church members from both congregations are far from wealthy. Few own their own homes. They are electricians, teachers and carpenters.

"We are a poor church," Cook said.

Membership has dwindled at Christian Life, an Assemblies of God affiliate, over the years to fewer than 100 members. About four years ago, Christ Armenian, which was burgeoning, joined with Christian Life.

The 450-member congregation helped out with operating costs, paying Christian Life, which owns the property, $4,000 a month.

The two churches staggered Sunday services. "It was the Americans at 11, the Armenians at 2," said Housepian. "It's like family ... in the fixing of this, we'll be all together.... In times of laughter and sorrow, we are all together."

Plenty of others dropped by the church Thursday -- with offers to lend their churches and schools. By about 10 a.m., the congregations had more than a half a dozen offers from churches and schools for places to hold Christmas services. Several more would come throughout the day.

And they began to count their blessings. Firefighters had saved photos of congregations from as far back as the 1930s. Financial and student records survived. The school wasn't damaged, nor the original parsonage.

Manchester and Khachikian opted to take the offer extended by La Crescenta Presbyterian, just a half a block away, to hold Christmas services there Sunday. La Crescenta had decided some time ago -- and for the first time -- to hold Christmas services on Sunday afternoon and evening, so the church was available Sunday morning.

"Somebody might think God had something to do with that," Manchester said.

Because Christmas falls on Monday this year, many churches are not offering Christmas Day services, instead having celebrations Sunday morning and late Sunday night.

Now, the pastors of the two homeless congregations are trying to decide whether, for the first time, they'll combine their services into one big one. The only problem: Some Christ Armenian members, most of whom were born in Iran, speak only Farsi or Armenian.

As they discussed the matter on the sidewalk, the church leaders gathered in a small circle and put their arms around one another, as Pastor Ray Rachels, the Southern California supervisor of the California Assemblies of God churches, offered a prayer.

"Things happen that we can't explain nor understand," Rachels prayed. "But just as ... the choir was singing 'Joy to the World,' we lean on that praise, that word -- that there is joy in difficult circumstances.... Something beautiful, something wonderful, will rise from these ashes."

A man whose son's funeral had been at the church on the day it burned leaned one of the funeral wreaths against the church's sign, still intact.

An insurance adjustor measured the church property, so a fence can be installed around the sanctuary, which will be demolished. Manchester predicted that it could take as long as two years to rebuild, given all the planning and permits that are required.

About noon Thursday, fire officials concluded their inspection and permitted church officials and the media to enter the sanctuary for a brief look. Pieces of charred shingles from the roof lay atop several feet of blackened, unrecognizable remains of the sanctuary. Clear blue sky replaced the roof.

But the vestibule was largely untouched. A 4-foot-tall portrait of Jesus still graced the wall. A green banner emblazoned with "Messiah" hung at the entrance, just above a large Bible, opened to the second letter of Apostle Paul:

"Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted by God."

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valerie.reitman@latimes.com

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