FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH parishioners turned out for an important event yesterday marking the beginning of a new church at the downtown site of the old one, which was destroyed by fire in the fall of 2018. (Neil Zolot Photo)
By NEIL ZOLOT
WAKEFIELD — Four and a half years after a five-alarm fire destroyed their building, clergy and members of the First Baptist Church broke ground for a new one at the corner of Common and Lafayette streets yesterday.
“This is a joyous day for our church family and the community,” Rev. Doug Dry said to the 25 to 30 people at the ceremony. “This is the time to turn a page and start a new chapter for the First Baptist.”
“This is a wonderful day for our congregation and the community,” Church Moderator David Parry added.
“This is a glorious day in the history of the church,” retired Pastor Reverend Peter Brown feels. “Our people pulled together.”
“It’s great to see this,” Town Council member Jonathan Chines said. “It’s been a long process. When the church burned, it left a hole in the community,” a reference to the October 2018 fire caused when the church was struck by lightning. Until very recently, the church bell stood outside on the site.
The target date for the new First Baptist Church is spring 2024. “We’ve all been on a journey and we’ll get to see it built together,” church Building Team member Elaine Pappas said. She and Dry also thanked town officials for helping with permitting.
The former church was built in 1872. It replaced an 1804 church across the street that also burned. “It housed us and our members, but it was not us,” Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Melinda Parry said, while asking people to “keep the memory of the old building in your heart as we enter a new one.”
She admitted the congregation has “been in the wilderness. This feels like we’re coming home.”
She and other speakers remembered the night of the fire, receiving frantic phone calls and going to the site. Brown had moved to Rhode Island and drove up. “So many of you stood by us that night and we appreciate it,” Melinda Parry said.
Later there was difficulty pursuing rebuilding during the pandemic and the problem of cost, which led to various designs. “We have been blessed to have people volunteer from the town,” Pappas said.
Over the last few years, First Baptist has used facilities at the nearby First Parish Congregational Church, among other places, for its functions and offices. Spaces at the library and in private homes were used for study groups and outreach sessions. “Our church was built to hold a lot of people, so they used our chapel,” First Parish Congregational Pastor Reverend John Dale said at a reception there after the ceremony. “It’s worked out fine.”
There’s been some historical symmetry in First Baptist being housed in First Parish Congregational. In 1909, there was a fire at First Parish Congregational and the used space at the First Baptist.
Dry came to work at First Baptist in 2021 at a church without a building. It wasn’t as tough as it sounds for him. “A lot of my experience was in new churches without buildings,” he said.
Still he joked, “I can now be identified as a pastor of a church that is being rebuilt, not a church that burned.”
Ross Geldart, 91, has been associated with First Baptist for many years. “This church has meant everything to me,” he said. “I have a lot of memories of it.”
He called his feelings about a new church being built “indescribable.”
A house of worship for generations, home to a nursery school educating hundreds of children over the years and an important part of a classic New England downtown, the nearly 150-year-old First Baptist Church fell victim to lightning strikes on a fateful October night in 2018.
A thunder storm rolled through town at about 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, and immediately on the heels of a couple of lightning strikes, the Fire Department started receiving calls reporting that the church had been hit. Shortly thereafter, the church’s fire alarm system went off and sent a signal to the fire station.
The first arriving Wakefield crew, led by Captain Paul Pronco, could see flames near the base of the steeple. They immediately started hitting that area with water and were preparing to bring a hose inside the church when the fire suddenly raced up the entire height of the 180-foot steeple. Captain Pronco quickly sounded a second alarm and then a third, in what ultimately became a 7-alarm fire.
Fire Chief Michael Sullivan said at the time that once a steeple is involved, it is very hard to control a church fire. Older churches such as the First Baptist Church tend to have multiple ceilings including decorative false ceilings with voids between the ceilings and the roof. Once the fire gets into that space, Sullivan said, a fire can easily gain a lot of headway before firefighters can even see it or get at it.
“There was just no stopping it once it got into that concealed ceiling space,” he said.
In short order, Sullivan noted, the entire roof of the church was on fire. He said that the dry wood of the nearly 150-year-old church burned ferociously, giving off a high level of radiant heat. He said that the Artichokes restaurant building next door to the church was “steaming” from the heat and windows on the side of that building facing the church cracked. The vinyl siding on an out-building on the church property melted from the heat.
There were three or four hours of active burning before firefighters were able to get the fire under control, and they remained there all night and into this morning fighting hot spots.
Engines and ladder companies came from Reading, Stoneham, Melrose, Saugus, Woburn, Lynnfield, Malden, North Reading, Middleton, Burlington, Peabody, Winchester, Revere, Lynn, Danvers, Lexington and Salem. A total of 20 engines and seven ladder trucks were involved in fighting the fire. Wakefield Firefighter Daniel Paglia came in for high praise for the way he calmly orchestrated the movement of those companies.
Sullivan called the church “a total loss. I don’t see how any part of the church could be saved.” He estimated the damage at at least $1 million.
The church was not equipped with a sprinkler system, Sullivan said, noting that there had been no significant construction at the church in recent years that would have triggered the requirement to install sprinklers. Had there been sprinklers, Sullivan said, it might have slowed the flames somewhat but it still would have been a major fire due to the age of the church. Most churches in Wakefield do have sprinkler systems, he said.
Sullivan said that firefighters used over 15 hydrants in the downtown area, Yale Avenue, Church Street and North Avenue. The DPW boosted water pressure to the area to help get more water on the fire. More than 100 firefighters dumped several million gallons of water onto the fire.
The church was also home to the Tall Spire Nursery School, where hundreds of children began their education over the years.
— Mark Sardella contributed to this report.