(Dec. 6, 2013) When the parishioners of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea gathered this past Sunday for morning services, they experienced what was likely the harshest departure from the norm that any congregation had yet encountered in the institution’s century-plus history.
Most profoundly, they were without their pastor, the Reverend David Dingwall, who had passed away the previous Tuesday.
Dingwall died as a result of a fire in the church’s rectory, alongside John Sterner, the man who allegedly started the blaze by committing suicide by self-immolation. Authorities have nothing definite on Sterner’s motivation, only that he clearly intended to cause his own demise when he doused himself in gasoline and approached the church’s food pantry.
“The answer to that question will haunt us. It will haunt us for a long time,” said Bishop James Shand of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton, who travelled to Ocean City Sunday to perform the service in Dingwall’s stead.
Even further, the congregation was not actually in their church, but in the public meeting chamber of Ocean City’s Town Hall – a space about as conducive to faith in a higher power as caffeine is to a good night’s rest. Although the fire was limited to the rectory, services are unable to be held in the church’s main hall until clean-up is complete.
But what was most painfully different, at least from the parishioners’ point of view, was the absence of Dingwall’s voice.
“I left church a lot of Sundays sort of regurgitating what he had said,” said parishioner Brian Connor. “And it was with understanding, not just by rote. He had a unique perspective on a lot of things.”
In a position that could often be dry and dogmatic, Dingwall was, by all accounts, colorful and sincere. He wore and earring and, in the summertime, Crocs, a shoe rarely associated with religious hierarchy.
“We all joked that it was the earring, that that was always the reason for everything,” said St. Paul’s organist and music director of 38 years, Shirley Hailey. “He had a real sense of humor. We had a lot of fun together over the years.”
“He didn’t conform or subscribe to any stereotypes,” said Dingwall’s brother-in-law Dave Regis. “In his ministry, you are who you are.
“He was concerned about the pastoral aspect of it first and foremost,” Regis said. “He knew people weren’t perfect.”
With children of his own, several parishioners said Dingwall’s approachable style appealed particularly to kids. His children’s sermon, which he did every week, was enjoyed by all ages.
“He wanted to build their interest in the church and have them build a family in the church,” said parishioner Lauren Taylor.
“We have young children ourselves, and he made us all feel very welcome in the church,” Connor said. “It brought my wife and I a lot of joy to see that.”
“He listened very well, you could tell that right away,” Regis said. “His sincerity stood out. He wasn’t just dogmatic, he was a real person.”
Despite his presentation being different from what many would expect from a priest, Taylor said, “it worked. That’s one reason the children felt comfortable there, because they didn’t’ feel it was outside their frame of reference.”
“It was never a dogmatic thing, it was very user-friendly and something you could relate to,” she said.
A native of Canada, Dingwall came to the Eastern Shore in 2003 following his wife, Brenda, after she was hired at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. He had served at several Canadian churches previously, and this month would’ve marked the 25th anniversary of his ordination.
“He just knew,” Regis said of Dingwall’s decision to join the priesthood. “We talked about it a few times, but it wasn’t just a job for him, it was a true calling.”
Curiously enough, Shand pointed out, the Sunday following the fire was Advent Sunday, the first day of the new liturgical year in the calendar of western Christendom, which represents “moving from darkness into light, which is what we have always done as God’s people.”
“The crazy days will soon be over, and the unexpected loss will be our reason, as a parish family, to look into the future,” Shand told the congregation.
The church’s vestry will soon be deciding if and when the restoration of the facility, and a return to normalcy, will occur.
“There will be decisions to be made, decisions your vestry will make that not everyone will appreciate or understand,” Shand counseled the congregation. “But the vestry needs to move forward as the leadership of this congregation.”
Until then, St. Paul’s will likely be using City Hall for its needs.
“They’ve asked to use our chambers on another couple of occasions,” Mayor Rick Meehan said this week. “It’s something we would do for anyone in our community in this kind of situation.”
“We’re taking it Sunday by Sunday,” said St. Paul’s Senior Warden, Jerilyn Andrews.
After nearly four decades at the keys and behind the choir stand, Hailey said, “I’m confident our church will come through this.”