NEW ORLEANS — One of the city’s largest churches, whose congregation was scattered by Hurricane Katrina, is facing another uncertain future after a weekend fire destroyed its 2,000-seat sanctuary.
Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Church was gutted by a predawn fire July 7. Parishioners who stopped by to see the damage compared the scene to a wake.
“We’re like family here,” said Lisa Smith, a social worker and member of more than 20 years.
As investigators search for the cause of the fire, Bishop Paul S. Morton, who built what was once a small Baptist church into a major congregation, said officials suspected the fire started in the choir area behind the pulpit.
Morton said the congregation was insured. His wife, Debra, was recently named the church’s pastor after her husband wanted to devote more time to nurturing a satellite church in Atlanta that was started after Katrina.
“We’ll be back, bigger and better,” she said.
The Mortons said they were summoned to the church well before dawn and watched a three-alarm blaze ruin the sanctuary. A nearby education building sustained heavy smoke damage, said church administrator Brandon Boutin.
The building’s loss presents the congregation with a major challenge.
Before Hurricane Katrina, Greater St. Stephen was by far the largest church in the city, perhaps the largest in the state. It claimed about 20,000 members worshipping at three campuses, and Morton was a prominent figure in the city’s political scene.
Katrina scattered the congregation, knocking its number down to about 5,000. The church’s location in eastern New Orleans is still closed, and a suburban branch is probably too distant to be of much use to the downtown congregation, the Mortons said.
For now, church members plan to worship at Temple Sinai, which itself is nearing the end of a multimillion-dollar renovation. “We say all the time we’re a house of prayer. Anyone who comes in a spirit of brotherhood is welcome,” said Rabbi Ed Cohn. “We’re walking the walk.”