Lenape Tribe mourns loss of historic church

CHESWOLD — The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware had been eying the Little Union Church, at 5083 W. Denneys Road outside of Dover, for quite some time before it burned down on New Year’s Eve.

“Our cultural mapping initiative with the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware had identified that building as a historic cultural property of the tribal community and we were in the process of trying to develop some protections for the church and even trying to acquire it from the owners until the fire occurred,” said Dennis Coker, principal chief of the Lenape Tribe.

“It was sad for our community and people to see it suffer that damage and it obviously kind of threw a wet blanket on our initiative.”

The fire broke out in the early morning hours of Dec. 31. The blaze sent three firefighters to the Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital in Dover and ultimately left the church a barely-standing ruin. The firefighters were later reported to be in “good condition.”

State fire investigators were alerted and sent to the scene. The investigators, along with federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) were searching for the fire’s origin and cause as of late December.

As far as Mr. Coker knows, it’s still under investigation. The State Fire Marshal’s office hasn’t returned multiple requests for an update.

The Little Union Church had been historically known as a place of worship for the Lenape Indians, says Mr. Coker. The church was located in the historic village of Fork Branch, a once thriving community. The Fork Branch Cemetery lies adjacent to the church where Lenape descendants are thought to be buried.

Mr. Coker says the church was sold in the early 1960s. To his knowledge, the new owners had used the church regularly for several decades, but in recent years it had sat idle.

“The building was actually starting to suffer a bit from not being occupied,” he said. “I believe some break-ins had occurred.”

Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware has been negotiating with the state to take possession of a swatch of the Fork Branch community across the street from the church property, Mr. Coker said and the tribe’s eventual plan was to see if the church could be purchased from the owners and moved.

“The Fork Branch community actually had a school which sat on the adjacent property, but it was closed down around 1964 as a result of desegregation efforts taking place in the state,” said Mr. Coker.

“The building was later developed as a small arms training facility for the Delaware State Police. Our goal was to move the church across the street, if we could convince the owners to sell it to us, to the school property because we’re negotiating with the state right now to have that two-acre school property returned to the tribe.”

Mr. Coker said the state is currently developing an environmental assessment and remediation plan for the school property on Dennys Road because it suffered contamination during its use as a training facility.

As for contact with the property owners, Mr. Coker said all previous attempts had been unsuccessful, and he’s uncertain who currently owns the church.

According to a Kent County deeds search, the current owner is listed only as: Little Methodist Union Church.

In it’s condition, Mr. Coker says he’s not sure what the future holds for the building.

“Our interest is diminished, but it’s not dead,” he said. “It’s hard to say because we can’t just walk on to the property and take a look at it, but the building appears to be destroyed.

Initially the fire marshal’s office estimated the damage to the church at $100,000.

“Who knows what will happen to it at this point,” said Mr. Coker. “The owners may gather it all up and throw it in a dumpster if that’s what they choose. Either way, it was sad to see it go out like this.”

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Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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