After fire, church to rise from the ashes

Arundel congregation getting set to rebuild

March 24, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The makeshift shelf sags above the makeshift desk in the makeshift office of Centenary United Methodist Church.

But in the adjoining room of the trailer lie scattered blueprints and permits - signs that the day is coming when the southern Anne Arundel County church will forsake these temporary digs for a new building to replace the one that fire destroyed.

"We said, `From the ashes a new church would rise,'" said the Rev. Stephanie Vader, Centenary's pastor. "And it will."

Two years ago, in the week before Palm Sunday, an accidental fire claimed the Shady Side church's historic home. The church had been building an addition and renovating the structure, which dated to 1866. Anne Arundel County fire officials determined that a roofing crew working on the steeple left a halogen lamp, and when an automatic timer turned it on after dark, the intense heat touched off the fire.

That year, Palm Sunday services were held under a tent, with the stench of the fire wafting over the congregation.

"Every time Easter comes around, you think of the fire," Cindy Rothhaas, a parent and substitute teacher, said last week as she helped fill 432 plastic eggs for the church Easter egg hunt. "I had just dropped off all of the supplies [for egg decorating]. They burned. They were gone."

Since the fire, Centenary has operated out of a variety of temporary quarters. Though congregants are grateful for community support, they are weary of running their church out of boxes.

Worship and Sunday school are held two miles away, at Oakland United Methodist Church. Large events, including parties and Easter egg hunts, are held at the Kiwanis Club of Shady Side.

Adult Bible study and church offices are in the trailer that sits in Centenary's gravel parking lot.

One of its windows overlooks a lot that is at once a sign of sadness and of hope. The 6,000-square-foot church that used to be there is missing. Daffodils line what used to be the path to the building.

But earth-moving is expected to start this spring in preparation for a 10,000-square-foot church there.

Many of Centenary's 300 members have deep roots in the church, and hardly any families drifted away after the fire.

Lucretia Brown, a third-generation member of Centenary's congregation, was baptized there. So were her grandchildren.

"For 80 years, I've been coming to this church. My daddy used to say, `It'll be the last place you go.' And this church has to get up because I'm not going anyplace else," she said, crossing her arms.

Members have opened their homes to house small keepsakes - such as chunks of broken beams that might find a spot in a church memorial - and to temporarily store large items that don't fit in the church's storage trailer. One family has 100 folding chairs in its garage. Another is baby-sitting the baby grand piano.

Congregants have pulled together, first by holding classes at each other's homes, then in planning to rebuild.

The old building committee evolved into a rebuilding committee, gathering around a folding table in the trailer.

Some 70 meetings later, the church is close to having a package ready to go out for bid.

With luck, bids won't exceed the $1.6 million budget. The church received $991,000 from its insurance company. Parishioners expect to add $600,000 to that.

Exactly how much Centenary will need to borrow is unclear and will depend heavily on building fund pledges, said Camille Vogts, church finance leader and a retired college purchasing officer.

What churchgoers miss most is the steeple and bell.

Illuminated at night, the old steeple acted as a beacon for miles around the flat peninsula.

Church members showed Bowie architect James M. Cush old photos. They sketched. They described. And Cush replicated it. The new one will rise 55 feet above the church floor, just like the old one. It will be illuminated. But there are a few changes: The bell will be rung electronically instead of with a rope. The steeple will be fireproof. The tower will have a 3,000-gallon water tank for fighting fires.

They wanted their 1860s bell in the new tower. But the bell, which became wedged in the attic in the fire, was cracked beyond repair. McShane Bell Foundry in Glen Burnie knew of a bell of the same vintage - another it had molded - for sale from a Pennsylvania church that was being converted into offices.

The compromise: The Pennsylvania bell will hang in the steeple. McShane is refurbishing Centenary's old bell for display in the new church entryway, a reminder of the church's past.

"The church is the people," Vader said. "We will create new memories."

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