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Beauty from ashes as one part of St. Luke's Episcopal Church still stands

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BATON ROUGE - Father Bryan Owen received a knock on his door in the early hours of Saturday morning. When he opened it, he could smell smoke coming from a fire consuming his home churchSt. Luke's Episcopal.

The building structure was deemed a total loss, but one miracle still stood in the form of a cross: the columbarium. Columbaria house loved one's remains inside niches that hold the deceased's ashes. St. Luke's Episcopal Church has the remains of more than 100 people, one of whom is 20-year-old Eli Palmer.

Palmer's mom, Cheryl, was out of town when the fire happened. She said she got phone calls and text messages of the fire and that she prepared herself for what her eyes were about to see. When Cheryl got to the church, she was shocked that the columbarium still stood. She thought the sacred place her son's memory lived in had been burned. It hadn't.

The Palmer family has been members of St. Luke's since 1997, and Eli was heavily involved and incredibly loved within his church.

"We lost him very suddenly, and had to make the decision as to whether to bury or cremate your child, which is impossible," Cheryl Palmer said. "It was [in an] instant that we knew he needed to be here, and there was no other place he needed to be."

With a tear rolling down her cheek, she expressed immense gratitude and awe that the one piece of the structure she thought had been lost, still stood.

"To watch this place that raised our children and raised our family, and then to see the picture of the columbarium and of this chapel still intact was everything," Palmer said.

Owen has been the reverend of St. Luke's for over 10 years, and obviously has never seen anything like the current state of his church. The reverend said he has gotten phone calls from families wanting to come and retrieve their loved one's remains, which he then has to turn down because retrieving human remains without state approval is against state law.

"It'd be like going into a cemetery and trying to dig someone out of the ground," Owen said. "You can't do that."

St. Luke's is assuring church members and families that once the cemetery board approves the moving of the columbarium, the church hopes to move the structure to a local funeral home. From there, the ultimate goal is to bring the columbarium home one day to the a fully restored St. Luke's Episcopal Church.

The church congregation gathered on Sunday in the St. Luke's Middle School gymnasium, where more than 400 people came for worship and fellowship. Owen said the outpouring of love and support from other churches has been overwhelming, but the plan is for St. Luke's to continue to meet in the middle school on church property.

"It fills up my heart because there's destruction, but there's hope," Palmer said as she gazed at the burnt structure.

The fresh smell of the smoke still lingers around church grounds, but amid the pain and the mourning, the smell of hope has already surfaced.

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