Fire guts landmark

By on December 1, 2001

St. John’s before the fire

Lunenburg, N.S.

One of the oldest Anglican churches in Canada has been destroyed by fire, apparently after Halloween mischief.

People in Lunenburg, N.S., wept openly on street corners Nov. 1 as they watched St. John church, a 247-year-old landmark tucked in the centre of their south shore fishing village, gobbled up by flames.

More than 120 firefighters spent 16 hours trying to save the Gothic revival style building, but in the end the white clapboard church was reduced to little more than a burned out shell.

“It’s a huge loss for the church and the wider community ,” said Archbishop Arthur Peters of the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. “St. John’s has always occupied a prominent place within the history and life of the church and the Lunenburg community.

“We know a church building is not the essence of church, but it does holds memories, and in this case many years of memories.”

Bishop Fred Hiltz, rector of St. John’s from 1988 to 1995, was among the grieving crowd in the community, located an hour southwest of Halifax.

“I loved this building. I loved these people and I just could not stay home. I felt a need to be here with them,” he said.

The church was a designated heritage property and a key part of the town’s 1995 designation as a United Nation’s heritage site. Its steeple has appeared prominently in thousands of paintings and drawings of Lunenburg’s waterfront.

David Dauphinee, a former parish warden and Lunenburg’s deputy mayor, watched the blaze in horror throughout the night.

“It was like a second home to many of us,” he said. “It was always the focal point of some activity, a concert or a recital. It’s hard to believe it’s gone.”

The church was built in 1753 with oak beams believed to have come from the old King’s Chapel in Boston. Mr. Dauphinee pegged the financial loss at around $5 million.

Firefighters responded to 22 minor fires within the town on Halloween night. Fire Chief Terry Conrad said it looked like the fire at the church had been deliberately set.

Rev. Irving Letto, St. John’s rector for the past two years, said his 1,100 parishioners are shocked, angry and sad.

“People are in different places,” he said as firefighters carried out any old Bibles, statues and wooden crosses that could be salvaged. “But at least 50 people came up to me and said a church is just a building. The congregation is still strong and will carry on.”

To underscore the point, Mr. Letto held a special service in the undamaged church hall just hours after the flames were extinguished and preach from an altar rescued from the blaze.

Archbishop Peters said despite the tragedy, he is confident that in time the people of St. John’s will regroup, refocus and create a new vision.

There will be discussion before a future course is set, but talk of rebuilding had begun even before the flames were extinguished.

Steve Proctor is a journalist based in Truro, N.S.

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