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Historian calls fire most important crisis in St. Paul’s history

Robert Stevens said the fire at St. Paul’s by-the-Sea, which claimed the life of its rector, the Rev. David Dingwall was for certain the most momentous event in the church’s history, which stretches back to the 19th century.

Stevens should know better than most:  he is St. Paul’s by-the-Sea’s historian and has been for at least the past 10 years.

As historian, he has kept copious records of church activities, newsletters and perhaps, most importantly, sermons.

Stevens and his wife, Sandy, learned of the fire and the death of their pastor in the worst possible way. The 83-year-old Berlin-area resident had just received an aortic valve transplant at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington D.C. In his hospital bed with Sandy by his side, the couple learned of the fire from a TV news report.

“I was doing well from the surgery,” said Mr. Stevens. “When we heard the news, I couldn’t keep my eyes dry.”

Mr. Stevens has always been an active member of the Episcopal Church, stretching back to his childhood in Catonsville, just outside of Baltimore, where his family worshipped at the Emmanuel Church on Cathedral Street.

When he and wife retired to the Eastern Shore, one of their highest priorities was to find a spiritual home. That for them became St. Paul’s by-the-Sea. Mr. Stevens can trace his family’s roots back 11 generations to when William Stevens arrived in Maryland in 1651. His grave and that of his wife, Magdalen, graves are in the Cambridge area.

The couple was particularly fond of Father Dingwall and his belief in helping the poor, said Mrs. Stevens. Both Bob and Sandy have taught in the church Sunday school and have served on the church board or vestry.

On a cool, late fall day in December, the couple talked about the church and the tragedy in their comfortable home.

Mr. Stevens admits to being more of a traditionalist. He loves praying and reading from the Book of Common Prayer. His wife said that they both would emerge from services feeling such a spirit of “renewal.”

Ever the historian, Mr. Stevens said that in 1931, the date the cornerstone of the church was placed, he was being baptized.

Mrs. Stevens helps with Ley Eucharistic visits. She ministers on behalf of the church to five women, all in their 90s.

“They remember mostly how everybody worked together at the church, no matter the function,” said Mrs. Stevens, who grew up in the Lutheran church but came over to her husband’s church. “They tell me that they would take their aprons, cooked meals and provided food to the poor. One of the ladies told me she has cried every day since she heard the news of the fire.”

The women also take communion with Mrs. Stevens.

“The interaction is so important,” she said, “but the truth is I think they teach me so much more than I teach them.”

There cannot be any feeling that could transcend the grief of the Stevens and other church members following this tragedy. But Mr. Stevens did want to make sure that the 10 volumes of history he had efficiently filed and put together was not lost in the fire. To his relief, the books were undamaged.

He calls the historic volumes “The Record.” He had the year 2011 Record at his home.

“I just thought that David’s sermons ought to be saved,” said Mr. Stevens. “I have all of his sermons.”

No mortal soul is perfect, however, and while Mrs. Stevens said she felt Rev. Dingwall “broadened” the reach of the church, Mr. Stevens suggested that this greater embrace had its troubling aspects.

“Our church is a historic church,” he said with emotion in his voice. “It’s wooden. It draws people who bring their problems to the church.”

Part of Father Dingwall’s ministry was the Shepherd’s Crook, the volunteer-run food and clothing ground floor pantry, which was engulfed by flames last Tuesday. “I didn’t want us to do this in a wooden church,” Mr. Stevens said.

He said he always feared that the wooden church would somehow be vulnerable to a fire. And he worried that the vulnerability was increased when individuals from the outside would come in.

“I worry about the safety of the church,” he said. “The church is very sacred. But a wooden church offering a lot of opportunities to eat can create problems.”

He worried that one day someone would toss a cigarette butt aside and not snuff it out.

“It was within the realm of possibilities,” he said.

Though inspired by his sermons and his ability to bring Biblical gospel to today’s world, said Mrs. Stevens, “David was probably a better preacher than pastor.”

“His message was understanding, and that people are in trouble,” said Mr. Stevens. “And historically, St. Paul’s was always trying to work with people in trouble. He played an important role there.”

Yet, the church historian said some people left the church, because they didn’t necessarily feel comfortable with the number of people who came from the street.

“I think David thought it was important to bring some people back.”

Mrs. Stevens said that at a recent vestry meeting, and despite the tragedy it faced, the attitude was far more positive than negative.

“We want the community to know that St. Paul’s is still here. We have positive feelings about the future.”


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