Whether you live in Waynedale or have simply passed through on Old Trail Road, it’s hard to miss the changes slowly taking place on the church building at the Prairie Grove Cemetery.
First, a bit of history—Built in the 1850s on ground that was for many years part of Miami Indian Chief Richardville’s estate granted to him by way of the 1818 Treaty at St. Mary’s, the land eventually came into the hands of landowner Richard Beck. The church was one of several in Allen County of similar construction, built by the United Brethren in Christ denomination, who, in 1855, purchased this particular one-acre parcel of land from Beck for $1. In keeping with the United Brethren mandate that the construction be simple and the seats free of charge, this one-room structure was home to countless services, where the rafters rang with lively praise and circuit-riding preachers proclaimed the undiluted gospel of God’s redemptive love for His creation.
Eventually, in 1913, the Cemetery Association bought the church and land from the United Brethren for $100. And through the years, the Prairie Grove Chapel was the birthplace of several church groups, including Avalon Missionary Church. Many people have fondly commented on their “precious memories” of this beloved edifice.
Just after midnight on Wednesday, March 26, 2008 a fire was set in the rear of the church.
Fort Wayne Firefighters responded to the call. They found smoke and fire coming from the first floor of the church. The firefighters used an aggressive interior attack and had the fire under control within 19 minutes.
The blaze caused heavy fire damage to the interior of the building, which housed the chapel, and the exterior wall, and heavy smoke damage to the entire structure.
Tom Rodak, President of the Prairie Grove Cemetery Association, said someone apparently broke a window out of the rear of the building, climbed in, opened the door (possibly to let in other conspirators) and started the blaze.
Homer Hoke, Treasurer of the association mentioned that the church was insured but he wasn’t sure if the compensation would be enough to cover the necessary repairs.
News of the arson fire prompted many inquiries from the public expressing concern for the chapel’s future and much appreciated offers of help. The church is about 159 years old! As a pre-Civil War structure, she’s earned her right to stay, is worthy of a facelift, and her restoration is well under way. The first phase included replacing the roof and removing the chimney and the carpet. The further intent is to restore her as historically close to her original condition as is feasibly possible. Realtor and Waynedale native, Glenn Ellenberger, has graciously stepped up to use his restorative expertise in overseeing the project and supervising the band of volunteers who are providing much of the hands-on effort, but more volunteers are needed. This promises to be a costly endeavor, and designated funds are limited. Any contributions from the public would be greatly appreciated!
Eventually, the cemetery would like to produce a collection of firsthand accounts of the history of the chapel. They are requesting any historical information that the public may have as a tribute to a simpler time and the timeless message that was proclaimed there.
Glenn Ellenberger can be contacted at 760-7194.