Published March 20, 2019
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — Now that the cleanup after the devastating First Baptist Church fire last October is complete, the immediate plan is to seed the property with grass and offer it as a temporary public space while the congregation continues to weigh options for the long term future of the property.
In a recent social media post, church moderator Melinda Parry provided the latest update.
“First Baptist Church has created a temporary plan for the site of our former building,” Parry wrote. “We will be seeding the area with grass and roping off the bell. Once the grass is grown we will welcome you to enjoy the lawn as a temporary public space. We would ask that you remain off the grass while the seeds are growing and to stay away from the bell. We are still working on determining what will happen with the site permanently. We continue to be very grateful for your support.”
A Wakefield landmark since 1874, the First Baptist Church at the corner of Common and Lafayette streets was destroyed after lightning struck the base of the church steeple at about 7 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2018. Despite valiant efforts of over 100 firefighters from Wakefield and surrounding towns, the fire spread quickly up the steeple and throughout the roof of the wooden structure.
Engines and ladder companies from Reading, Stoneham, Melrose, Saugus, Woburn, Lynnfield, Malden, North Reading, Middleton, Burlington, Peabody, Winchester, Revere, Lynn, Danvers, Lexington and Salem responded to what ultimately became a seven-alarm fire. The intense blaze gave off a high level of radiant heat while sending burning embers high into the night sky.
The following day, Wakefield Fire Chief Michael Sullivan called the church “a total loss,” estimating the damage at over $1 million. There were no civilian casualties from the fire, although several firefighters sustained minor injuries.
Since the fire, the First Baptist congregation has been worshipping on Sunday mornings in the chapel of the First Parish Congregational Church. The Tall Spire Nursery School, which had for decades rented space in the church, was displaced for weeks before finally being relocated in a building on Chestnut Street owned by The Savings Bank.
Removal of the rubble from the fire was delayed somewhat when it was determined that the church had contained asbestos. Whenever hazardous materials are present, a removal plan must be submitted to and approved by environmental agencies before any removal can begin.
Church members have maintained that rebuilding the church on the site remains one of their highest options.
The First Baptist Church has risen from disaster a few times in its time here. According to a Nancy Smith article about the storied church in “Wakefield: 350 Years by the Lake” published in 1994, First Baptist had been in several locations in its earliest years.
One of them was at the corner of Crescent and Main streets. In December 1835, fire destroyed it. “A new church, 48 feet by 68 feet, an improvement over the former one, was built on the same site and was dedicated on January 30, 1837. In 1853, the building was enlarged and repaired, with a vestry added,” Smith writes.
“In 1871, the congregation had outgrown the old building; plans were formulated to build a new one when fire destroyed the second building on June 21. Ground was broken for the third meeting house (at the corner of Lafayette and Common streets) on June 27, and the cornerstone laid August 22. The first service was held in the vestry of the building on June 23, 1872, and the building was completed and dedicated on December 11,” the article continues.