'Suspicious' fire damages Franklin County church built in 1800s

Investigators looking into possibility of arson

By Tommy Lopez - Weekend Anchor / Reporter

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Va. - Members of a Franklin County church are shocked and saddened after a fire caused damage Friday morning and investigators are looking into whether it’s an arson case.

New Hope United Methodist, which is on Old Forge Road near the Callaway community, is still structurally sound but fire crews said there’s fire damage in the sanctuary and smoke damage throughout the building. There’s no visible fire damage on the outside of the church.

Investigators with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office told 10 News the fire is “suspicious” and they will continue to investigate the cause.

Church members said it was painful to see burned pews lying outside the church.

“It was a shock. It was like somebody dying. I don’t understand how this could happen,” said Carolyn Saul, who is the fifth generation of her family to attend New Hope.

The church was built in the 1850s. Saul said the community is proud of its history.

“It’s a loving community. It’s a close community,” she said.

She said there have not been any red flags, any sign that somebody would want to do take action against the church.

“We love everybody. I don’t understand how someone can have such meanness in their heart,” Saul said about the possibility of arson.

Three Franklin County fire departments responded just after 6 a.m. Friday. Two bus drivers told the church’s pastor that they just happened to be nearby when they smelled smoke and called 911.

The pastor, Amy Pannell, is thankful for the fire crews, which told her that had they not been there, the church would have gone up in flames.

“We’re just so greatful no one was hurt. No one was here, but also the fire departments,” Pannell said.

Church members said they still plan to worship Sunday morning at their normal time -- 8:30. They’ll hold a service outside at a pavillion on their property, if necessary. Other churches have reached out to help as well.

Copyright 2019 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.