Five years after fire, Jamaica Plain church set to rise from ashes

Congregation set to worship in building today

By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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Parishioners watched helplessly from an ice-slickened sidewalk five years ago as a fire rose from the basement and tore through the roof of First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, leaving only the high walls and bell tower standing. That bitterly cold January night, church members vowed to rebuild.

Today, exactly five years to the day of the fire, the church is expected to again fill with spiritual melodies, sermons, and parishioners.

“We’ve waited a very long time for this, and it hasn’t been easy raising the money to rebuild. But we knew all along that we were eventually going to step back into that church,’’ said the Rev. Ashlee Wiest-Laird of the German-Gothic style church at 633 Centre St.

With only 80 members, the church has struggled to raise enough money to resurrect the structure. The minimal cost was estimated to be about $7 million; and restoring the church to its original form, with mahogany roof columns and pews crafted from solid-black walnut, would have cost an estimated $12 million, considered out of reach for the small church.

The church received an immediate insurance payout of $2.8 million, and through a capital campaign that relied on three-year pledges from the congregation and fund-raising events, raised $1.3 million. The church sued the manufacturers and installers of the basement furnace that caused the blaze, and the case ended with a settlement, the amount of which the church is prohibited from revealing.

For now, the buzz of construction fills the church; and while the church will reopen its doors today, the rebuilding project is ongoing. Windows need caulking, wiring needs to be installed, and some plumbing work remains.

A second rebuilding phase is planned, focused on the second floor, the sanctuary, and several small classes, essentially doubling the structure’s 7,000 square feet. Wiest-Laird hopes to continue raising money to fund that estimated $2 million project and pay off about $300,000 on the current construction.

The congregation, she said, has been a study in endurance. After the fire, members held services under a tent erected on a grassy lot in front of the church. Then, they were allowed to worship at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament several blocks away, and eventually moved services to a rented double-wide trailer placed in front of the church.

Fires at the church date to 1856, when a previous First Baptist Church building burned to the ground. The church was rebuilt three years later across the street, at its present location. Then, in 1975, an arsonist set fire to the church, and parishioners raised the money to rebuild. That fire did less damage than the one five years ago.

When the latest fire broke out, the church had just done $228,000 in renovations, including a new kitchen, bathroom, furnace, and waterproofing and painting. A pre-Civil War organ, valued at $1 million, was destroyed in the blaze. The organ, built by E & G.G. Hook, was considered a masterpiece, able to put out unique sound. It was saved from the 1975 fire. About two years ago, the church bought another organ by the same manufacturer for about $5,000.

But in spite of church members’ confidence that the sanctuary would rise from the ashes, a handful of local residents skewered their architectural plans. They were concerned that the original style would be compromised by cost-cutting measures and saw the burned-out church shell as an eyesore. Huge support beams propped up the walls, a chain-link fence wrapped the property, and the double-wide trailer that also served as the church’s temporary offices filled a large grassy area where residents were accustomed to picnicking and sunbathing.

“I know it is ugly, and we couldn’t be more pleased to make it all go away,’’ Wiest-Laird said.

Councilor at Large Felix Arroyo Jr., a Jamaica Plain resident for eight years, said: “This is a good sign. I’m excited at the progress that’s being made there that will enable them to worship back inside. It is a smaller group, but they are really active in the community. They’re part of the community; they’re known for their involvement.’’

Nancy Sweeney, moderator, has been a lifelong member of First Baptist, where her parents belonged. “It’s definitely been a journey, but those of us who knew the old building, we were immediately committed to rebuilding it. There was never any question about that. This was our spot in Jamaica Plain, and we weren’t going to give that up.’’

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