Searching for understanding one day after fatal church fire

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Nov 27, 2013
Members of the Ocean City Fire Department carry a victim pulled from the fire building to an awaiting ambulance along Baltimore Avenue in Ocean City Tuesday morning. Photo: Grant L. Gursky

Members of the Ocean City Fire Department carry a victim pulled from the fire building to an awaiting ambulance along Baltimore Avenue in Ocean City Tuesday morning. Photo: Grant L. Gursky

[Episcopal News Service] Instead of celebrating a Thanksgiving Eve Eucharist on the morning of Nov. 27, the members of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church remained stunned after a fire at the church the morning before killed two people, including their rector.

The Rev. David Dingwall, who would have turned 51 on Dec. 26, died hours after the fire occurred in the office area of the church at 3rd Street and Baltimore Avenue in Ocean City, Maryland.

The Rev. David Dingwall, who would have turned 51 on Dec. 26, died hours after the fire occurred in the office area of the church at 3rd Street and Baltimore Avenue in Ocean City, Maryland.

The Rev. David Dingwall, who would have turned 51 on Dec. 26, died hours after the fire occurred in the office area of the church at 3rd Street and Baltimore Avenue in Ocean City, Maryland.

The fire began when a person on fire entered the church’s Shepherd’s Crook ministry offices, located in the 1923 rectory building that is part of the church’s property. Shepherd’s Crook provides food and clothing Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings.

Diocese of Easton Bishop James “Bud” Shand told the Episcopal News Service in a telephone interview Nov. 27 that he had been told a person whose clothes were on fire ran in from the street to the church office. The Town of Ocean City in a press release issued midday on Nov. 27 identified the man as John Raymond Sterner, 56, of Ocean City.

Sterner “embraced” a woman volunteer who was there preparing to open up for the Tuesday food distribution, Shand said. A man in the office “tried to kind of knock him down so he would roll and put him out but he couldn’t get near him because the heat was too intense.”

The man who tried to stop Sterner was also burned, Shand said.

Officials did not confirm those details in their release and did not identify the woman who is still being treated for burns or the other man. Sterner was declared dead at the scene. No other information about Sterner was released.

Dingwall was in his office on the second floor when the fire broke out, according to Shand, and suffered smoke inhalation. The town said that Dingwall was found “during a primary search of the second floor of the building, where they experienced heavy smoke and heat conditions.”  The unconscious priest was quickly removed from the building, treated on the scene by paramedics and transported to Atlantic General Hospital, where he later died, the town said.

While the exact cause of the fire is still under investigation, the press release said investigators suspect an accelerant was involved in the quick spread of the fire.

“Initial damage assessments indicate significant fire damage of the first and second floor office, in addition to smoke and overhaul damage throughout the first floor of the rectory building,” the town said in its press release.

Ocean City firefighters work to extinguish a blaze in the rectory of St. Paul's by the Sea Tuesday morning. Grant L. Gursky

Ocean City firefighters work to extinguish a blaze in the rectory of St. Paul’s by the Sea Tuesday morning. Grant L. Gursky

A number of area Episcopal priests responded to news that St. Paul’s was on fire, Shand said. The priest from Church of the Holy Spirit, another Ocean City Episcopal church, came to the scene to minister to responders, according to the bishop, and others went to the hospital were the victims were taken. One of those priests anointed Dingwall that afternoon, Shand said.

Shand, who came to the church after the fire, was in route from visiting one burn victim at another hospital to Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, Maryland, to see Dingwall again when he received word that the priest had died.

The parish is “shocked” and “reeling” the day after the fire, the bishop said. The junior warden was meeting with the church’s insurance company this morning to discover the extent of the damage. The town said the church had “minimal to no significant damage.” News reports said the sanctuary was intact but had suffered smoke damage.

“We don’t know what goes through people’s minds, why people do what they do and why they inflict pain and hurt on other people like they do. Why did that man do that? I don’t know,” Shand said. “But we have to live with the good and the bad, the dark and the light … there will be resurrection experiences out of this. It might be hard, but we will move on. This congregation will become more resilient as time goes on.”

St. Paul's By-the-Sea in Ocean City, Maryland, before the blaze.

St. Paul’s By-the-Sea in Ocean City, Maryland, before the blaze.

The Gothic Revival wood-shingled St. Paul’s Church dates from 1900 but, Episcopal services began in Ocean City in 1878, just three years after the first hotel opened on the island, according to a history on the church’s website.

The building where the fire occurred also houses the Red Doors Community Center, a St. Paul’s ministry.

“We mourn the loss of our rector and priest, Father David Dingwall, and pray also for everyone affected,” including the other unidentified victims, one who died and one who suffered life-threatening injuries, the community center said on its Facebook page.

The town said the community center experienced “minimal to no significant damage.”

Much of Ocean City was mourning as well. St. Paul’s parishioners, as well as other members of the Ocean City community, will gather for a prayer service at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on the evening of Nov. 27. Shand said he and the Rev. Heather Crook, the canon to the ordinary, will be at that service “to be there for the folks of St. Paul’s-by-the-Sea.”

Amy Morgan, St. Peter’s office manager, told Episcopal News Service in a telephone interview that one of the Lutheran church’s parishioners was a first responder to the scene and was “pretty shaken up by it all.” Out of her conversation with that woman, Morgan said, came the idea from her and Pastor Gregg Knepp for St. Peter’s to offer to host a prayer service for St. Paul’s members and “for the community just to come out a show our support.”

Morgan contacted the Rev. Penelope Morrow, St. Paul’s deacon, to see if the parish would want to have such a service, and she said she also called Cook. “We didn’t want to be intrusive; we didn’t want to step on any toes. We just wanted to show our love and support,” she said.

The service will include a “love offering” to be given to the diocese for use at St. Paul’s, Morgan said.

Morgan said the hours after the fire have been “surreal” because, while one hears on the news about “bizarre” things like this happening elsewhere, “you never think it’s going to happen here.”

“It made me go home and hug my daughter tight,” said Morgan, who often had to pause to compose herself during the interview.

Ocean City is popular resort town located at the southern tip of Fenwick Island, a barrier island off the coast of Maryland that stretches north along Delaware. It has a year-round population of about 7,100 people, but swells to more than 300,000 in the summer. The town is “tight-knit,” Morgan said, and area churches often come together to serve community needs.

“When there’s a need, you really see the heart of this community come out,” she said. “That’s why I love this place.”

Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Larmore called Nov. 26 “a very tragic day for our community.”

“We are thankful for the numerous agencies that assisted us during our response and especially thankful for all of the public safety personnel who helped prevent this fire from claiming more lives,” he said in the town’s press release.

St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and many other area churches have offered their worship space to St. Paul’s, Shand said, and near-by St. Mary Star of the Sea-Holy Savior Roman Catholic Church offered to host the priest’s funeral. That service will probably occur sometime early next week, the bishop said, depending on when law enforcement officials release of Dingwall’s body.

Staff at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland in Baltimore are conducting autopsies “to determine the manner and cause” of Dingwall’s and Sterner’s death, the town said in its release.

Shand said the entire Episcopal Church and other denominations have been “very generous” in their offers of help and prayers.

Dingwall moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 2003 after serving three parishes in the Canadian province of British Columbia where he grew up. He was received into the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Church of Canada in 2005, according to his biography on the church’s website. “He is particularly thankful for this time as the people of the parish provided him with a gracious introduction to life in The Diocese of Easton, The Episcopal Church and, perhaps most importantly, to life on the Eastern Shore,” the biography says.

Dingwall is survived by his wife Brenda, their three sons and their dog Minnie. Their children all live in the area, according to Shand.

“Everyone is in shock. Everyone is devastated for his family,” Amanda Cropper, a vestry member who’s in charge of the church’s building and grounds, told the Associated Press. “He was a strong advocate for those who are not lucky in life.”

She added: “He’ll be greatly missed, but for me it will be on the more personal side. … He had a devastatingly wicked sense of humor.”

The congregation was “devoted” to Dingwall and his leadership, the bishop said, and the priest “reached out to the community in big ways.”

“David brought home to them the commands of our Lord” to feed the hungry, to give shelter to those who need it and give clothing and water to those going without.

St. Paul’s had a “tremendous ministry to the misplaced, the displaced people of Ocean City and there’s a lot of them,” Shand said.

For years, the parish has served a Christmas Day dinner and last year’s meal hosted between 600-700 dinners with about a 1,000 meals served take-away style, according to Shand.

The fire, especially coming just two days before Thanksgiving, “will leave an indelible mark in the minds of Ocean City, St. Paul’s” the bishop said.

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

Comments (18)

  1. The Rev. Tally Bandy says:

    So very sorry to read of this tragedy. Like the Phoenix, St. Paul’s will rise from the ashes, but the sadness will remain. We are never quite the same after such a seismic event. My prayers are with the people there.

  2. The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas says:

    What a shock to read this story. May everyone touched by this tragedy find meaning and healing in the Risen Christ.

  3. Rev. Derek F. Nicholls says:

    It was with great sadness that I heard of the fire at St. Paul’s and the death of its Rector, Rev. David Dingwall. He was a graduate of the Anglican College of Emmanuel & St. Chad, Saskatoon, Canada
    where I was also trained. I send our love to his wife and family and the assurance that David will be remembered at our Advent Sunday Eucharist at St. James the Apostle, Regina, in the Diocese of Qu’Appelle, Canada.
    Fr. Derek & Margaret Nicholls

  4. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. May the soul of David Dingwall and the souls of all the faithfully departed rest in peace. May all those who grieve find the consolation of their faith.

  5. Donna-Mae Siderius says:

    Brenda and her sons worshiped at St. Johns in Hampton, VA. The boys sang in the childrens choir and took music lessons. We remember an especially poignant Advent service where Nick read a lesson. The news of the Rev. David Dimgwalls death is beyond sad. Our thoughts and prayers are with Brenda and the boys and the community.

  6. the Rev'd Francene Young says:

    On behalf of the Vestry and congregation of St. Luke the Evangelist, Houston, we send our deepest sympathy to families of the victims and to our brothers and sisters in St. Paul’s By-the-Sea in Ocean City. May you feel the arms of Jesus holding you during these tough times.

  7. Marcia Mary Cook says:

    The Sisters of St. Mary, Sewanee, TN are joining me in praying for the repose of those souls, and for Our Lord’s healing grace enfolding the hurting spirits of St. Paul’s parish and Ocean City. We pray also for Bp, Shand and Canon Cook as they minister to this suffering community.

  8. Rev. Leslie Lewis says:

    David was a dearly-loved colleague in Kootenay Diocese, British Columbia. I grieve his death and send love to his wife and family.

  9. My family has been coming to Ocean City since I was a child and we always worshiped at St. Paul’s-by-the-Sea if we were at the beach over a Sunday, and I have continued to do so each year into adulthood. The Dingwalls, Shirley Toms who is the organist, and others in the congregation remember us each year when we return and I have always been touched by their ministry of hospitality to vacationers and by their mission to the poor and marginalized. We visited Ocean City over Labor Day Weekend this past year and I had lunch with Father David and Brenda after the service and we had a great time discussing various topics including music and family life in the church since I am a PK and a church musician. Having worshiped here at least once or twice a year for close to 30 years, I have met several clergy at St. Paul’s and Father David was one of the best! My heart is sad because, even though we only met a few times, I feel that I have lost one of my priests and a friend. I have other friends in this community who are hurting (Brenda and the boys, Shirley, and others) and I would love nothing more than to be there to embrace all of them. I pray for this very special and loving community that they can find the strength to heal and carry on their important ministry of welcoming and hospitality that means so much to those of us who look forward to coming back each year.

  10. Michael LeCompte, Ocean City, MD says:

    As one of the first responders to arrive at this blazing church, we as firefighters encountered a shocking and tragic church event. We who handled the issues at the fire scene and witnessed death from inside this historic church, are asking our famlies and friends…….. why??? I was married in this beautiful church over 32 years ago and have been a volunteer firefighter/EMT for 35 years. But, this fire loss, injury and death, has really shocked me and so many of us; in this very close seaside community. After attending a touching and wonderful service this evening, I ask all of you to reach out to this family of severe loss and offer your support. Please continue to pray and support the lady church volunteer who is in critical condition, in a Baltimore Burn Center. She really needs our deep prayers for very speedy recovery!

  11. Dianne Aid, TSSF says:

    So sorry to read this. My prayers go out to the whole community.

  12. John Barton says:

    I pray for Rev. Dingwall, his widow and children and the community of Ocean City, that his soul may rest in peace and they may be healed in body, mind, soul and spirit. It is so difficult to fathom why this tragedy happened.

  13. The Rev. Dr. Charles H. Morris says:

    I am deeply saddened by this news. Such tragedies happen too often, and are impossible to really understand why. May we join in deepest sympathy and prayer especially for the widow and children, and close friends and parishioners of Fr. David Dingwall. And give thanks for the outpouring of love, support and grace from the Bishop Shand, the Lutherans and others there.

  14. Please know of the love and prayers coming from so many of us in the Diocese of Massachusetts. Al my love, prayers and hopes for a sense of God’s peace and the “sure and certain hope of resurrection.”

  15. June Cridland says:

    I am saddened to hear of David’s passing. David was my tutor for four years while I studied theology to become a priest. He was also my pastor and deeply involved in the Shuswap community of B.C.
    My prayers are offered for the family of David and his parish family. He was so passionate about his journey here on earth. I shall remember him for his humour and hard work . Thankyou Lord.

  16. the Rev Dr. Canon Beth Marie Murphy says:

    On behalf of the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad, Saskatoon, SK, I send loving support to Brenda and the boys on the very tragic death of David. May you know the presence of God very specially in your life in the difficult days ahead

  17. Laurie Ljubojevic says:

    Several parishioners at my church, St John the Evangelist, in Salmon Arm, B.C. we’re shocked and saddened by this news of the Rev. David Dingwall’s death. They knew him personally because he had worked for several years as a priest in the Diocese of the Kootenay. He served as an:
    *Incumbent in Cranbrook, B.C.
    *Priest in three small towns: Sorrento, Chase, and Celista. (Whilst priest in Celesta he married Sarah and Mike Turgeon O’Brien.)

    In addition, The Rev David Dingwall’s father was Priest in Niagara, Ontario.

  18. Linda Fortier says:

    I was shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of David. He married my husband, Paul and I while he was the incumbent at St Andrew’s All Saints Church in Chase, BC. I remember him as a very hard working faith filled man with a terrific sense of humour. Our sincere condolences to his family and all those he loved and was loved by.

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