Just days before a 140-year-old church in West Baltimore was destroyed by fire, the nonprofit corporation that owns it was twice threatened with foreclosure - on both the historic house of worship and a separate 9-acre plot purchased in 2002.
In the aftermath of Tuesday's five-alarm fire, Bishop Oscar E. Brown of First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church has raised the spirits of thousands of followers by announcing that the church's insurance company has committed to pay out $4 million - enough to pay off their debts.
"Maybe their prayers were answered," said Bill Waller, an in-house lawyer for Virginia-based Mooring Tax Asset Group. On June 29, Waller's company initiated attempts to seize the church complex at Saratoga Street and Fremont Avenue over a still-unpaid 2005 city water bill of $12,342.
But the 69-year-old congregation is not out of danger yet. Emily Abbas, a spokeswoman for GuideOne Insurance, said yesterday that the company has a representative investigating the fire, but no financial settlement has been determined. A city Fire Department spokesman said yesterday that "lightning is the cause of origin" of the blaze, and that its investigation is closed.
Last week, the church was notified that a Southwest Baltimore property it acquired in 2002 would be auctioned off at the end of this month because the church was in default on its $1.5 million mortgage, according to records filed in Baltimore Circuit Court.
SunTrust Bank, the mortgage lender, declined to answer questions about its customers.
Brown, through a spokesman, also declined to talk about the church's financial situation, but he addressed the pending foreclosure Wednesday night at an emotional post-fire rally.
"I was angry with the Lord" about the foreclosure auction, the pastor told his parishioners, "because we have been working feverishly" to pay the bills. And when the lightning struck, Brown said, "I took it personally. I said, `God, how much can one man take?'"
Having worked his audience into a near-frenzy of anticipation, Brown delivered a happy ending: "Whether we rebuild or go to Wilmarco, we've got $4 million," he proclaimed.
Wilmarco is a reference to the 9-acre industrial parcel in the 2700 block of Wilmarco Ave. near Carroll Park. Purchased by First Mount Olive in 2002, it has about 170,000 square feet of commercial space available, but only one current tenant: Reddy Ice Holdings, which leases about 30,000 square feet of refrigerated space.
Two signs at the entrance advertise a July 26 foreclosure auction of the property at the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel. The auctioneer, Atlantic Asset Management Group, says the foreclosure sale is still scheduled to go on.
But Raymond Booth, chief operating officer of Dallas-based Reddy Ice, said he has "reason to believe that it may not. I don't want to say much because I don't want to jeopardize some of the things taking place behind the scene."
Booth praised First Mount Olive as "wonderful people, great landlords" and said he hoped they would be able to retain the property. He said church leaders have told him they plan to build a community center on the grounds.
First Mount Olive has had other financial problems in recent years. In 2005, a Baltimore District Court judge ordered the church to pay more than $22,000 in unpaid copying-related bills to the Xerox Corp., records show.
The church has failed to meet its court-ordered obligation to pay back that debt, said Adam R. Wilk, an attorney for Xerox.
That same year, the church failed to pay more than $77,000 in city taxes or bills on the Wilmarco property, records show. The private investor who bought the debt at a tax sale said yesterday that the church has still not paid the bill, and that he intends to try to foreclose on the real estate.
Wednesday night's address by Brown was the first time many parishioners learned of the church's financial problems, according to member Sheila Robinson, who joined the congregation in 1989.
"It was shocking. And I'm not the only one who feels that way," Robinson said. "What has happened, it's going to make everybody stronger. It's going to make everybody pull together more. I don't foresee anybody drifting anywhere else."
Church spokesman Bryan Miller said he has been told "to give no comment about the litany of financial issues ... at this time."
Miller also continued to decline to say whether the church was equipped with a lightning rod, which experts say could have prevented the fire.
Fire officials said they have found no evidence that a lightning rod was affixed to the steeple - which first caught fire - or any other part of the church.
Abbas, whose company specializes in church insurance, said it does not require customers to have lightning rods but does recommend them.
Sun reporter Julie Turkewitz contributed to this article.