Parishioners mourned the loss of Church of the Redeemer on Saturday after the Longport landmark was engulfed in flames during an early morning thunderstorm.
The 104-year-old Episcopal church was gutted by the fire, with its terra cotta roof collapsed inside the sanctuary and its white stucco walls blackened by smoke. Church officials vow to rebuild the church, which is among the oldest structures in the seaside community.
“It’s just devastating,” said Tom Subranni, chairman of the church’s board of trustees. “But life goes on. We will rebuild and we will go on.”
Subranni said the blaze was started by either a downed utility pole or lightning. Despite the presence of fire crews from several nearby towns, Subranni said high winds and the age of the building made suppressing the blaze nearly impossible.
“The old building went up like a candle,” he said. “With winds blowing 50 miles per hour, they were fanning the fire like billows in a blacksmith’s shop.”
Dedicated in 1908 and completed in 1909, the church has attracted a loyal congregation to the vacation town. Parishioners from across the country attend the church’s summer services, which began Father’s Day weekend. Services are typically led by visiting pastors who stay for several weeks or months at a time.
“We all feel hollow,” said Maggie Dearnley, who lives in Little Rock, Ark., but spends summers in Longport. “You forget and then you look up, see it again and you feel worse.”
With the baptism of her grandson at the church more than two months ago, Dearnley, 65, said five generations of her family have worshipped there. She had hoped future generations would continue attending services in the building.
Mike Cohen, the township historian and former mayor, said many residents — including his family — had gathered early Saturday morning to watch the blaze. After so many years working to preserve the building, he said it was heartbreaking to watch its destruction.
“All those years putting effort into something you love,” he said. “I can’t even look at it — I close my eyes when I drive by; I can’t see it.”
Cohen said the building had a special power over those who sat in its pews, amid its walnut paneling awash in the glow of its intricate stained glass windows. Its power even transcended denomination and faith. Cohen, a Jew, said sitting in the back pew was a spiritual experience unlike any other.
“All you have to do is come here, sit in one of these pews and you get a very good feeling,” he said in a prior interview. “The warmth that surrounds this church is something you can’t find anywhere else.”
As an unofficial caretaker of the building, Cohen said he often stopped by in winter, when the church was closed, to make sure a pipe hadn’t frozen or windows hadn’t been blown open by the wind.
“If you come here in the winter time, upset about something, the place lifts your spirits,” he said. “It’s something I can’t describe.”
Like Cohen, the first congregants here weren’t Episcopalian either, or at least they hadn’t been for long. The seaside colony was founded by Quakers. After worshipping in various locations over time, including the borough hall, they received a donated plot of land from wealthy landowner Joseph P. Remington to establish a permanent church.
According to local lore, Cohen said, the donation came with strings attached.
“Instead of being Quaker, they became Episcopalian because Mr. Remington’s daughter played piano and she couldn’t play the piano in the church if it was a Quaker church,” he said.
Construction began in late 1908, at a cost of about $6,200, with the first service being held on July 4, 1909. It was built to evoke the Spanish missions of New Spain, complete with an enclosed terrace, overlapping terra cotta roofs and whitewashed stucco walls; a popular style at the time.
Cohen said the lack of adornment in the oldest section of the church, the nave, was probably influenced by its Quaker roots. The interior was relatively plain, he said, much like a traditional Quaker meeting house.
Additions were added over time — first an altar and sacristy, then the guild hall and kitchen and finally a separate rectory, which survived the fire, for visiting priests. They all maintained the Spanish mission style on the exterior, but were progressively more ornate inside. The church altar, in particular, featured hand-carved balusters around the choir pit and trim around the organ and windows.
One of the church’s most striking features was a series of stained-glass windows designed in the 1930s by Philadelphia-based Willet Stained Glass Co., a renowned firm that still operates today.
“Those windows are irreplaceable,” Cohen said Saturday. “The stained glass could never be duplicated — it’s worth millions of dollars now.”
The old church had faced a number of obstacles over the century its bells tolled Longport’s hours, from hurricanes and northeasters to a brush with closure. In 1934, it survived a storm that reportedly “turned Longport into shambles.”
“When the storm subsided and while many of the parishioners were marooned, the chimes rang out from the church tower, ‘Peace, perfect peace; our future all unknown’,” according to one newspaper article.
In the late 1980s, Cohen said the parishioners rallied together when the church was in danger of being closed by the Episcopal diocese. Ultimately, the church remained open as a summer-only mission and their efforts resulted in it being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
The church also survived ever-increasing property values in the desirable vacation town. According to the state Department of Community Affairs, the average residential property value in Longport is more than $950,000, compared to an average of $340,000 in the Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area.
Cohen said the church’s five buildable lots would be worth millions, even after the recession, but the trustees never sold.
Subranni said the Church of the Redeemer will live on despite the fire. There are plans to hold today’s service on the lawn, he said.
“When things get cleaned up, we’ll hold services under a tent on the labyrinth” adjacent to the burned-out building, he said.
The church was insured, Subranni said, and the congregation will try to rebuild it as close to the original as possible.
“We have a lot of faith that everything’s going to work out in the end,” he said. “We will miss our beloved church, however.”
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