(June 13, 2014) Demolition of the fire-damaged rectory at St. Paul’s by-the-Sea church is nearly complete as of this week, marking another chapter – but not the final one – in the remaking of Baltimore Avenue’s streetscape under tragic circumstances.
“The town has been very gracious, along with the state, in allowing us to have the lane closings and such that we needed to get it down,” said Bob Rothermel, a local businessman and member of the church’s vestry.
“This is going to be a long process,” Rothermel said. “As you can imagine, there are a lot of different thoughts, ideas, and emotions that come into play. The vestry has established a task force to try to expedite the process.”
What the ultimate use for the site will be, if anything at all, is still up in the air. But the burnt-out remains of the rectory building have to be removed regardless, Rothermel said.
The rectory formerly housed the church’s administrative offices on its upper floors, as well as the Shepherd’s Crook food and clothing pantry on the ground level. It was attached to the church’s main hall by a single passageway.
On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, John Sterner, a troubled homeless patron of the pantry, committed suicide by self-immolation. Sterner entered the Shepherd’s Crook after having doused himself in gasoline and lit himself ablaze, causing fire to spread rapidly throughout the rectory.
Sterner was found dead by firefighters at the scene. Several other employees and patrons were able to escape, including one who suffered severe burns, but the church’s pastor, Rev. David Dingwall, was trapped in his upper-story office.
Dingwall was hospitalized, but died of smoke inhalation later that day.
Given the circumstances, there is considerable debate within the congregation on what should be done with the property, Rothermel said, and if the church should attempt to rebuild its homeless ministry in light of the tragedy.
But the plan for the time being is to try to return to some state of normalcy, “whatever that may be,” Rothermel said.
“Our hope is to reseal the area where the rectory was attached, and build a handicap bathroom in that area,” Rothermel said. “We’re using the same kind of stone and siding as the main hall, so that it doesn’t look like anything ever happened there. That’s going to be our stop-gap until we figure out what we really want to do on the north side of the property.”
The rectory building dated from the 1920s or 30s, Rothermel estimated.
“We did find some old rosaries in the walls while they were tearing it down,” Rothermel said. “We’ve chatted about saving some of the floor joists and making a cross out of them.”