Historic church prepares for groundbreaking and new chapter, a year after being destroyed by fire

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Posted at 8:00 AM, Aug 21, 2021

CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- The Gabriel Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church is expected to begin the long process of rebuilding on Saturday.

The church caught fire and burned down in August 2020 after it was struck by lightning, according to fire investigators.

The groundbreaking will consist of church leadership starting to lay down materials and dirt on the church’s property, Dr. Sandi Hutchinson, the church's pastor, said.

Hutchinson recalled being in bed when she received the call that the church was on fire in the early morning hours.

"I remember by the time I got in my car, I received a call saying, 'The church is burning to the ground,'” Hutchinson said. “I actually thought they were exaggerating. When I got there, the church was burning to the ground."

She said her knees buckled at the sight of the fire. Hutchinson added she tried to be resilient and guide her congregants through the fire – congregants whose families had attended Gabriel Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church for decades.

The church stood in the Cuffeytown community of Chesapeake for over 150 years, being built three years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the first self-sustaining African-American community in Virginia.

Support from all over, locally and regionally, began to pour in to help rebuild the church, with fundraising events supporting the church's efforts and community members helping salvage whatever they could of the historic building.

Hutchinson said she is optimistic of a new church and that the lightning strike served as a euphemism.

"In the insurance policy it says lightning is an act of God,” Hutchinson said. “I thought about that, and I reminded them that this event is described as act of god and nature. Therefore he will not let this work go unfinished."

The groundbreaking starts Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and is open to the public. Hutchinson said frozen treats and back-to-school supplies will be handed out.

The church site is located at 2216 Long Ridge Road in Chesapeake.