Blaze destroys church

Lightning may have started fire at historic Hampden structure

August 03, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,sun Reporter

Betty Callahan arrived at her Hampden church before firefighters did early yesterday morning, only to see "fire tongues" licking the base of the steeple and then engulfing the 130-year-old bell tower and slate roof in flames.

Minutes later, about 6:30 a.m, firefighters were dousing Mount Vernon United Methodist Church at 801 W. 33rd St., as evacuated neighbors looked on in the gray dawn.

"It looked like Niagara Falls," said Callahan, the church's lay leader and treasurer, of the water shooting from the 15 fire engines called to the scene. "And then the slates came down."

The three-alarm fire, which erupted amid an intense lightning storm, destroyed the historic church, causing an estimated $5.5 million in damage and leaving church leaders shaken but vowing to rebuild.

"In the midst of darkness, we believe in hope, and hope is certainly here today," said the Rev. Robin Johnson later in the morning, as members of his small but active congregation stood in the street gazing up at the charred steeple, shattered stained-glass windows and exposed roof beams.

Four hours after they arrived, firefighters were still spraying water into the smoking steeple, sending slate tiles and shards of timber falling to the street below. The stone base of the building appeared undamaged, but many beams were reduced to smoking embers.

There were no reports of injuries or damage to nearby properties, fire officials said. People living in rowhouses nearby were evacuated for several hours.

Fire Department Division Chief Reginald L. Session said the cause of the fire was under investigation, but several people who live nearby reported being awakened by multiple cracks of lightning about 5:30 a.m., during a brief but fierce storm that swept the region.

Session said there was one other minor fire reported early yesterday morning, in Northeast Baltimore. About 28,000 BGE customers, mostly in the city and Baltimore County, temporarily lost power during the storm, according to the utility company's Web site.

Despite the ferocity of the thunderstorm, there was little major damage reported elsewhere in the region, said a Fire Department spokesman, Chief Kevin Cartwright. "There was no reported flooding or wires down, or trees down," he said. Fire officials in Baltimore County said some utility poles were knocked down, but that no major incidents were reported.

In Hampden, the church fire brought back memories of lightning that struck a 140-year-old West Baltimore church last summer, igniting a five-alarm fire that left another historic sanctuary in ruins.

About a third of all church-building fires are caused by lightning, according to the Lightning Research Lab at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Lightning rods can prevent fires in tall structures, but not, apparently, in the case of Mount Vernon United Methodist. Yesterday, a lightning rod and its wiring were visible at the top of the steeple.

Sessions said the property has been condemned and that building inspectors from the city would determine whether the skeletal remains of the steeple and bell tower would have to be removed.

Johnson, the church's pastor, said the property was insured and that he would meet with congregants today at the nearby sister church, Hampden United Methodist, to discuss the congregation's future.

Carole Lewis, a parishioner in the approximately roughly 40-member congregation, said the church was the oldest in Hampden. The stone building was built in 1878, according to state property records. Callahan said the building was a gift to textile workers by David Carroll, owner of the Mount Vernon Mill in nearby Woodberry.

The congregation was formed about 30 years earlier and celebrated its 160th anniversary last year, Lewis said.

Active membership in the church has been dwindling in recent years, said Suzanna Allen, who lives three doors down and was married in the sanctuary. "This summer is the first summer we didn't have a vacation Bible school," she said.

Despite flagging membership, Allen said the church is "extremely important" to the community, providing assistance to needy families and activities for youths. "Hopefully, they'll be able to rebuild," she said.

The church also housed a thrift store and was home to the Hampden Flea Market.

Apart from its importance to the community, the church is an architectural treasure, said George L. Peters Jr., chairman of the Hampden Community Council's Zoning and Land Use Committee.

"It was beautiful," Peters said. "Everything was old-growth wood ... massive arches, it was an amazing structure. You don't see structures built like this very often, even from this time period."

Another neighbor, Joelle Kutsiukis, said she worried that the fire would force church leaders to sell the 4,600-square-foot property. "So many of our churches in Hampden have gone into private hands," Kutsiukis said, looking at the broken stained-glass windows along Chestnut Avenue. "You ... know that a developer would love to get hold of this. I just can't imagine what we're going to do now."

Johnson, the pastor, said it was too early to discuss the building's future, but he said his congregation was active and would maintain its decades-long traditions.

"The church is not a building," Johnson said. "The church is a community, and we will continue."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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