Authorities blamed arson for a Saturday blaze that destroyed the gym and chapel of a Mormon church in Essex, where members -- many in tears -- gathered yesterday for salvage efforts rather than worship.
Under steady snow, some shivered while they carried portraits, documents and silk flowers from the burned sanctuary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Stemmers Run Road.
The stench of charred wood cut through the cold air as volunteers boarded up doors that would have led to a church service yesterday morning if not for the fire.
Damage from the blaze, which the Baltimore County fire department said started in the rear of the building, was estimated at $3 million.
The blaze was the latest, and most serious, in a series of incidents of arson and vandalism directed against the 600-member church -- one of several main Mormon centers for the Baltimore metropolitan area.
Battalion Chief Mike Whittaker, a spokesman for the fire department, said a previous arson fire had gutted parts of the structure while it was being built four years ago.
Some members complained that their church has been a constant target for vandals who spray-painted profanities on the building, or put bullet holes in the windows.
"We would never do this to anyone else," said Carol Ford, the church's choir director, as she searched through the ruins. "It's sad. You can't describe it; it fills your body and you're hurt inside. It's our home."
Mrs. Ford said the church has tried to weld a good relationship with its neighbors by holding open houses and choral concerts.
"We're like a family here, and now a family's been burned out," she said.
"The fire was like a nightmare -- we kept wondering when would it be over. We couldn't believe it."
The blaze, reported at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, was brought under control about midnight by 120 firefighters using 30 pieces of equipment.
News of the blaze was spread through the congregation by telephone early yesterday. Members gathered, devastated, at the church and wept. Some wondered where they would go to worship before church officials made arrangements to share a Mormon church in Towson.
"I can't understand this," said Kris Goss, 28, a member from Timonium. "Why would anybody do something like this? What goes through their minds to set fire to a church?"
Crockett Ferguson, a former bishop's assistant at the church, coincidentally had returned home Saturday night from visiting a friend whose house had just burned down when he heard the news of the church fire.
"I was devastated," Mr. Ferguson said.
Tonya Young, a spokeswoman for the church, said the structure would be rebuilt within six months. Capt. David C. Schott of the Eastview fire station, a member of the church, was hailed as a hero by some members. Witnesses said Captain Schott directed the firefighters who kept the blaze from reaching the church office, saving important birth, marriage and death records.