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Fire-ravaged Malibu church breaks ground for new sanctuary

Four years ago, a brush fire burned down Malibu Presbyterian Church. The new building will showcase the view of the beach and 'have a contemporary and casual feel,' the architect says.

November 14, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • The Rev. Greg Hughes holds the charred metal spire from Malibu Presbyterian Churchs old sanctuary, which burned down in 2007. The spire is to be displayed in the congregations new sanctuary.
The Rev. Greg Hughes holds the charred metal spire from Malibu Presbyterian… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

If members of Malibu Presbyterian Church needed any inspiration, it was in plain sight Sunday when the Rev. Greg Hughes stepped to the front of the congregation's temporary sanctuary.

At his feet lay the twisted, blackened spire that topped the church's steeple when a brush fire engulfed the Malibu Canyon Road church Oct. 21, 2007, and burned it to the ground.

"It's like it was yesterday. I can taste ash in my mouth," Hughes told a crowd of 450 gathered to give thanks for the 63-year-old congregation's survival and to break ground for a new sanctuary.

PHOTOS: Malibu Presbyterian Church

Hughes had been at the church preparing for that day's Sunday services when the fire swept over its hillside site. He and colleagues were able to remove important documents and computers before blowing embers ignited the church steeple.

The blaze, dubbed the Canyon fire, destroyed 21 other structures as it raced over 4,500 acres.

Congregants banded together in space borrowed from Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church, the Malibu Performing Arts Center and Webster Elementary School after the fire. Once the debris was cleared, they erected tent-like, plastic-roofed structures to serve as a worship hall, classrooms and offices.

The new $10-million building will feature glass walls that will frame the view of the beach and Santa Monica Bay. Insurance will cover the cost of the construction, which is expected to take about a year.

The replacement church structure will be as fire resistant as possible, architect Lew Dominy promised.

"We're doing everything we can to lessen the possibility of having to rebuild again," he said, explaining that extensive copper and stone will be used on the exterior.

"It will have a contemporary and casual feel. It's trying to be student-friendly and very informal" for those attending nearby Pepperdine University who take part in the church's university ministries program, Dominy said.

Before members stepped outside for the groundbreaking ceremony, several recounted the difficult days after the fire.

"But the trying time was a blessing," said Karin Larsen, a member of the church's building committee.

Luke Love, who married wife Jill at the church in 2002, reminded children in the audience that the ceremony was marking a new chapter in the church's history.

"You guys are going to remember this day for the rest of your lives," Love told them.

In his message, Hughes quoted from the Bible's book of Luke: "They stood still, their faces downcast ... then their eyes were opened."

"Isn't that our story?" Hughes said. "We were downcast over our beloved sanctuary. This is a sacred place for us, a launching pad for 50-plus years. I want us to remember it's not about a building, it's about what happens in that building."

"If you find yourself in an ash heap, don't let that define you," he said. "We're moving on, we're getting up. The devil winds brought the fire that burned down our church. But that's not the end of our story."

Hughes said the steeple's charred metal spire would be preserved and displayed in the new sanctuary as a reminder of the story of how a church rose from its ashes.

PHOTOS: Malibu Presbyterian Church

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