Plans to demolish Texas church where gunman opened fire in 2017 draw visitors back to sanctuary

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (AP) — Plans to tear down a small Texas church where a gunman in 2017 killed more than two dozen worshippers drew visitors Tuesday as a last-minute push was made to stop the demolition.

Leaders of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs have not publicly announced when it plans to demolish the sanctuary, where authorities put the number of dead from the shooting at 26 people, including a pregnant woman and her unborn baby, in what remains the deadliest church shooting in U.S. history.

Inside the church Tuesday, victims’ relatives and community members who came to see the memorial, possibly for the last time, sat on the floor in somber silence. Roses were placed in remembrance of the lives lost.

Roxanna Avants, 71, moved to Sutherland Springs after the shooting and said she came to support those who lost loved ones in the shooting. Avants said even if people don’t want to walk past a reminder of a tragedy, the church is still a house of God and a memorial for those who died in 2017.

Outside the church, the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office told journalists to leave the area, saying neighbors had made the request for reasons related to private property. News cameras were not allowed in the church or parking lot.

On Tuesday, a Texas judge approved a temporary restraining order sought by some families to delay the demolition. The order signed by Judge Jennifer Dillingham instructs the church to not to begin demolition and to appear before the court later this month.

But Sam Fugate II, an attorney for the families that sought the restraining order, said the church had still not been served the order as of Tuesday afternoon and expressed concern that the demolition could still proceed.

Christine Earnhardt, a secretary for the church, said Tuesday that she could not confirm whether a demolition was scheduled and that the church had no plans to comment or make a statement.

Following the shooting, the sanctuary was turned into a memorial. The interior was painted white and chairs with the names of those who were killed were placed there, the lawsuit said.

The church then voted in 2021 to tear down the building, which opponents have contended was against the wishes of many surviving family members. A new church was completed for the congregation about a year and a half after the shooting.

“We're not after money. We're after what's fair,” Fugate said. “We want our clients to say their peace about whether the church should stand and take another vote.”

Amber Holder, a church member who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said she wanted to make sure survivors of the shooting and the victims' families have a vote. "So many victims’ families were told: ‘You’re not allowed to vote because you’re no longer a member here,’” Holder said.

Holder said she wasn’t at the service the day of the shooting but got there shortly after. As a teen she was taken in by the family of the pastor at the time, whose 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, was among those killed.

Terrie Smith, president of the Sutherland Springs Community Association, said that as news of the upcoming demolition spread in the community of less than 1,000 people, those she had spoken with were “devastated.” Smith said that a woman who was like a daughter to her — Joann Ward — and her two daughters, ages 7 and 5, were among those killed in the shooting.

Smith, who is not a member of the church, said she often visits the memorial sanctuary. “It’s just a beautiful, beautiful memorial the way it is now,” she said.

“You feel the comfort of everybody that was lost there,” Smith said.

Communities across the U.S. have grappled with what should happen to the sites of mass shootings. Last month, demolition began on the three-story building where 17 people died in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, it was torn down and replaced.

Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, New York, and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where racist mass shootings happened, both reopened. In Colorado, Columbine High School still stands — though its library, where most of the victims were killed, was replaced.

In Texas, officials closed Robb Elementary in Uvalde after the 2022 shooting there and plan to demolish it.


Stengle contributed to this report from Dallas. Associated Press reporter Paul J. Weber contributed to this report from Austin.