UPDATED: Fire severely damages historic Virginia church days before Christmas

By David Paulsen
Posted Dec 19, 2023

Editor’s note: This story was updated with information on the bishop’s planned Dec. 24 visit to the region and a message from St. Peter’s rector.

[Episcopal News Service] A fire severely damaged an Episcopal church in the Diocese of Virginia early Dec. 19, forcing parish leaders to scramble to find alternative accommodations for Christmas services just days before the holiday.

No one was in the building at the time the fire broke out at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oak Grove, according to a diocesan email, which described the damage as “extensive.” A photo shared by the diocese shows firefighters on the altar surrounded by ashy debris, soot-covered walls and smoke still billowing up to charred rafters.

Firefighters at St. Peter's

A photo released by the Diocese of Virginia shows firefighters on the scene of a fire Dec. 19 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oak Grove.

Oak Grove is a small community near the Potomac River about halfway between Richmond and Washington, D.C. Bishop E. Mark Stevenson is traveling to the church to provide pastoral and logistical support alongside the Rev. Rod Gordon, St. Peter’s rector, the diocese said. Neighboring Episcopal churches have offered to open their doors for St. Peter’s to worship there through Christmas and beyond as the congregation determines next steps for its fire-ravaged church.

The cause of the fire wasn’t immediately known.

“We pray earnestly for the people of St. Peter’s and the Oak Grove community,” Stevenson said in a written statement. “Losing a house of worship is heartbreaking. And we also know a church is more than a building, it is a family of believers who gather to offer praise and worship to our Lord Jesus Christ.

“In this season of Advent as we prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world, we have a sure and certain hope that Jesus is joyfully present with us, even in this time of sorrow. May God bless the people of St. Peter’s, the first responders who acted quickly, and all who will assist in the journey before us.”

St. Peter’s is planning to hold a “longest night” service Dec. 21 in its garage, and Stevenson will travel Dec. 24 to the nearby St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Colonial Beach to celebrate Holy Eucharist on the fourth Sunday of Advent with members of St. Mary’s and St. Peter’s.

St. Peter’s, which describes itself on its website as “a small church with a big heart,” had been preparing to celebrate the building’s 175th anniversary in May. It was built in 1848-49 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The parish’s history, however, dates back even earlier to 1653, when it was established by early British settlers, according to the church’s website.

Gordon, the rector, posted an update on Facebook on Dec. 20, saying he found himself in “a state of denial and disbelief that this has actually happened.”

“On the eve of our 175th year in Oak Grove, we remember and celebrate that St. Peter’s has touched the lives of countless numbers of people in our community,” Gordon wrote. “Although we have lost this beautiful building, what remains are the stories and warm memories that we can share together as a community faith; the baptisms, confirmations, weddings, celebrations of life, Christmas pageants and other special events that have defined us over these years as St. Peter’s Church.”

He also wrote of “a new opportunity to discern God’s desire for our community of faith” after the fire.

“I request your prayers, daily as we enter into this new season,” Gordon said. “I am confident that we, the church, St. Peter’s Church, will continue to be that positive, vital, and joyful presence in our community for future generations as we serve God, love one another and our neighbors in joy, inclusion, and peace.”