Storm-caused fire destroys summer chapel in south Jersey

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jul 2, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] Lightning, or a downed utility pole, sparked a fire June 29 that destroyed the Church of the Redeemer, a Diocese of New Jersey seasonal chapel at Longport on the southern Jersey Shore.

The Rev. John Baker and his family, from the Diocese of Virginia, who are due to be in residence for the next few weeks were not harmed in the fire, Bishop George Councell said July 1 in a message to the dioceses. Redeemer’s rectory is intact, he added. During Eucharist on the lawn adjacent to the burned-out building July 1, Redeemer’s chalice, recovered from the ruins by firefighters, was on a makeshift altar, according to a report  in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Burned and tattered Episcopal and U.S. flags stood nearby.

Baker told the two dozen worshippers that “Christianity is about what you do when something happens. The message of today is all about new life and hard times.”

Councell asked the diocese to “pray for the people who regularly attend the Church of the Redeemer and all those who support its presence and its ministry in the community of Longport.” “May our Lord bless and uphold them with grace and wisdom as they discern God’s call and consider the future shape of their mission in obedience to Christ,” he said.

Members and friends of the chapel have already vowed to rebuild.

Redeemer was organized in 1886 and became mission church of the diocese in 1918. The church nearly closed in the 1980s and it then became a summer chapel. The current Spanish mission-style church building dates to 1908. Redeemer opens for residents and vacationers during the summer months and is served by visiting priests. “The old building went up like a candle,” Tom Subranni, chair of the chapel’s governing board, told the Press of Atlantic City newspaper. “With winds blowing 50 miles per hour, they were fanning the fire like billows in a blacksmith’s shop.”

Subranni said the blaze was started by either a downed utility pole or lightning.

“We all feel hollow,” Maggie Dearnley, 65, who lives in Little Rock, Ark., but spends summers in Longport, told the Atlantic City paper. “You forget and then you look up, see it again and you feel worse,” said Dearnley, who added that five generations of her family worshipped in the church.

Mike Cohen, the township historian and former mayor, said many residents — including his family — had gathered early on June 30 to watch the blaze. After so many years working to preserve the building, he said it was heartbreaking to watch its destruction. Cohen, a Jew who served as an unofficial caretaker of the building, told the newspaper he used to come by in the winter to check on the pipes and make sure storms off the oceans hadn’t torn open any windows.

“If you come here in the winter time, upset about something, the place lifts your spirits,” he said. “It’s something I can’t describe.”

Cohen said the seaside colony was founded by Quakers who worshipped in various locations until they received a donated plot of land from wealthy landowner Joseph P. Remington to establish a permanent church. The donation had a string attached: “Instead of being Quaker, they became Episcopalian because Mr. Remington’s daughter played piano and she couldn’t play the piano in the church if it was a Quaker church,” he said. Construction began in late 1908, at a cost of about $6,200, and the first service was held on July 4, 1909.

A series of nautical-themed stained-glass windows designed in the 1930s by Philadelphia-based Willet Stained Glass Co., which operates today as Willet Hauser, were later added and destroyed in the fire.

Brian Dearnley, of Philadelphia, and his wife Meghan were married in the church. They attended the July 1 Eucharist and told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter that it was painful to think of the stained-glass windows. “They had a beautiful nautical theme – squid, octopi. Now, it’s a melted coke bottle,” he said.

The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs says the average residential home value in Longport is $953,465. Cohen said the church sits on five buildable lots located about a half block from both the Atlantic Ocean and Great Egg Inlet. He estimated the lots are worth millions of dollars.

Subranni said the Church of the Redeemer, which celebrated Eucharist on the lawn July 1, would rebuild.

“When things get cleaned up, we’ll hold services under a tent on the labyrinth” adjacent to the burned-out building, he said.

The church was insured, Subranni said, and the congregation will try to rebuild it as close to the original as possible.

“We have a lot of faith that everything’s going to work out in the end,” he said. “We will miss our beloved church, however.”

A series of destructive storms wreaked havoc on the mid-Atlantic states during the night of June 29-30. Southern New Jersey was on the northern edge of those storms. Vince Maione, an Atlantic City Electric official said July 1 the violent storms that left 3 million people without power across the eastern U.S. produced a “level of pure destruction” in South Jersey that was “more severe” than the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene last August.

The storm that meteorologists are calling a “derecho” brought winds in excess of 70 miles per hour that uprooted trees and tore off limbs, the south Jersey utility company said in a statement. The winds uprooted trees and blew down limbs, which brought down numerous power lines and broke cross-arms and poles, the utility said. The utility predicts it will take until late July 6 to restore power to all of its customers. Three deaths were attributed to the storms in New Jersey.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.