Prayers sought for fire-damaged New Jersey UM church, food pantry

April 22, 2024 |

Colonial Manor United Methodist Church, in West Deptford Township, suffered significant losses from an arsonist’s fire early Saturday morning, April 20. While the sanctuary was not damaged, the fire prevented their use of the building for worship on Sunday and will prevent them hosting their weekly food distribution ministry and other activities for an indefinite period.

Churches in the Greater New Jersey Conference’s Coastal Plains Region received a letter today from the Rev. Glenn Conaway, regional team leader, updating them about the fire’s impact and aftermath and asking for supportive prayers. Conaway is Superintendent of the Delaware Bay District, where Colonia Manor is located.

Flames tore through and severely damaged the old sanctuary section of the building, which houses the church’s food pantry and thrift shop, Conaway reported. The congregation held Sunday worship at nearby Westville United Methodist Church. The Rev. Walt Mander is the pastor of both churches.

The fire was determined by the local prosecutor’s office to be a case of arson. A homeless man, Brian Cannon, 44, whom the church has helped in the past, is in custody. He was charged with three counts of arson and is currently being held at the Salem County Correctional Facility while he awaits a detention hearing, according to police.

Food pantry supports 30-40 families a week

The church’s thrift store sustained most of the damage, along with the space where the Greater Woodbury Cooperative Ministries Food Bank feeds 30-40 families every Saturday. Thousands of dollars’ worth of food was also lost in the fire. The church hosts other community health ministries there weekly also.

“It breaks my heart. I still come up here once a week to play the piano for them,” Donna Stemberger, a member of the congregation for more than 60 years, told CBS TV News Saturday. “Why would you do that to something that was so helpful to the community?”

Crews were able to salvage the church’s original bell from the tower Saturday afternoon, and Stemberger said she’s thankful the flames didn’t spread to the building where the sanctuary is located. “I’m grateful that it’s two separate buildings, and the newer building, which I remember sitting under a tree and watching them build, is saved,” Stemberger told CBS.

“It is unknown at this time if the older section of the church can be rebuilt or will need to be demolished,” wrote Conaway. “The portion of the building that houses the sanctuary and fellowship hall did not sustain any damage, other than smoke-related issues,” he added. “At the present time the congregation will worship with their sister church at Westville UMC, until they are cleared to return to the sanctuary.”

‘Please be in prayer for this small but caring congregation’

Conaway asked members and churches in the Coastal Plains Region and beyond to “please be in prayer for this small but caring congregation. Also, pray for the firefighter who sustained minor burns to his hands, and the homeless man, for whom the congregation has already been praying.”

The church’s food pantry program will remain closed to food donations and recipients for some time.  Conaway’s Delaware Bay District will announce when it reopens and what donated items will be needed.

“If your church cares to make a monetary donation to help with costs,” he wrote, “please make checks out to Colonial Manor UMC and send them to Colonial Manor, c/o Rev. Walt Mander, 56 Elderne Ave. West Deptford, NJ 08096.”

UPDATE from Rev. Walt Mander: April 25, 2024

Our hopes are that the TENTATIVE re-opening date for the food pantry will be June 1, 2024. We very much look forward to seeing our clients again! Since we are unable to store food, we cannot accept food donations at this time.
Checks payable to Colonial Manor United Methodist Church should note: “FOOD PANTRY RECOVERY” in the memo section of the check, and should be mailed to:
Colonial Manor United Methodist Church
ATTN: Pastor Walter Mander
56 Elberne Avenue
West Deptford, NJ 08096.
Thank You, and God Bless.
Pastor Walter Mander

See a CBS-Philadelphia TV news report about the fire from Sunday, April 21, at 6:47 PM:
Fire forces Colonial Manor United Methodist Church to move Sunday services

 See a more detailed CBS-Philadelphia TV news report with neighbors’ comments:
Man charged with arson after fire found burning inside Colonial Manor United Methodist Church in West Deptford