While Episcopalian worshippers celebrate 200 years here, a burning memory simply won’t fade

  • Dressed in early 1800s attire, R.P. Hale plays the organ at St. Paul’s Church on Wednesday. The Episcopal church will hold a service Sunday in the style of 1817 to celebrate the parish’s 200th anniversary. There will also be an anniversary service today. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Old photographs from St. Paul’s church’s 200-year history are displayed on a table at the church on Wednesday. The Episcopal church will hold a service on Sunday to celebrate the parish’s anniversary. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • A record book open to a page listing baptisms in 1837 is seen at St. Paul's Church on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. The Episcopal church will hold a service on Sunday in the style of 1817 to celebrate the parish’s 200th anniversary. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dressed in early 1800s attire, R.P. Hale plays the organ at St. Paul's Church on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. The Episcopal church will hold a service on Sunday in the style of 1817 to celebrate the parish’s 200th anniversary. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • The interior is seen at St. Paul's Church on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. The Episcopal church will hold a service on Sunday in the style of 1817 to celebrate the parish’s 200th anniversary. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • The inside of St. Paul’s church looking toward what is left of the altar after the fire of April 11, 1984. The church reopened in December of 1986 but some still can’t shake the tragedy. Concord Public Library / Courtesy

  • Episcopalian priests from around the area participate in the 1948 consecration of Bishop Charles Francis Hall as the Bishop on New Hampshire. The consecration was held at St. Paul’s Church.

Monitor staff
Published: 1/4/2017 8:39:06 PM

The date remains with Marjorie Hascall, which is too bad.

She wants to enjoy today’s service marking the 200th anniversary of Episcopalian worship in Concord, staged formally at St. Paul’s Church since 1859. She wants to enjoy Sunday’s special service, with its 1817 style of song and dress, and she’ll love that, too.

But there’s that darn date to consider, from 33 years ago, Hascall’s Pearl Harbor, a date that lives in infamy, today, tomorrow, forever. It’s the date St. Paul’s was destroyed by fire, and it’s a date that Hascall, the landmark’s archivist for this big event, tells you with the speed of a fire eyeing old wood.

“April 11 of 1984,” Hascall told me, nearly before the question left my mouth. “I will remember that day as long as I live.”

Thankfully, there will be lots of distractions, happy distractions, over the next four days. St. Paul’s Church, with its towering steeple and stained glass windows and iron gate facing Centre Street, is an architectural masterpiece, something that’s easy to take for granted when you drive past it dozens of times each month.

But people like Hascall won’t let that happen. Neither will the Rev. Kate Atkinson, nor organist R.P. Hale, both of whom joined Hascall to educate me on the church that stands in the shadow of the State House dome.

“It has grown and developed and changed over the years,” said Atkinson, her British accent barely detectable. “That’s what we’re celebrating, the people whose lives have been affected over the years.”

Hale, in particular, represented the spirit of the past, dressed as a colonial gentleman in red breeches, coat and vest, white frock and ruffled sleeves, and dark lower leggings. A ponytail – his own hair – streamed from the back of his wool cap.

He’s equal parts historian, printer, wood engraver, calligrapher and musician. He works at the McAuliffe Shepard Discovery Center, touching the future as senior educator there, while reliving the past with me at the church, where he’s played the organ for 16 years.

“I’ve been doing a lot of weddings and ceremonies and service music, and a lot of it was here,” Hale told me. “I played the last wedding in the old church before the fire.”

Oh yes.

The fire.

It’s hard to get very far when talking about St. Paul’s Church without taking a detour in that direction.

Sure, the church, first organized on Jan. 5, 1817, as St. Thomas Chapel, dates back to pre-Civil War times. And featured former United States president Franklin Pierce as a congregant later in the 19th century. And hosted a ceremony for the Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop, that attracted worldwide attention.

Plus, Hascall found invitations to the 1917 centennial celebration while searching through boxes in the basement.

But the fire changed everything, and now it melts into the conversation each time the church’s history is discussed.

The fire was started by a serial arsonist, Philip Melanson, whom Concord police had hauled into headquarters after tracing a harassing phone call back to his apartment.

“This is the arson man,” the voice told police. “I’m down in the South End and I’m going to burn.”

He was soon freed, due to lack of evidence, and arrested in Florida 4 years later, charged with setting dozens of fires.

The alarm box at Centre and North State streets alerted firefighters during the wee hours of April 11, at 12:46 a.m., and the fire was declared under control at 3:50 a.m. About 120 firefighters responded.

Stained glass more than 100 years old was smashed to gain access to the fire. The roof had gaping holes. The shell was a charred mess. Only the walls and bell tower were spared.

Hale remembered.

“Someone called me at 8 in the morning about it,” he told me. “I came over and couldn’t see anymore, or I didn’t want to see anymore, so I turned away and went back home.”

Hascall remembered, too.

She had attended a meeting at the church the night of the fire, before midnight. She got home and went to sleep. Her phone rang at 4 in the morning, about the time firefighters said the fire had finally been tamed.

“It was the executive secretary calling me to tell me what had happened,” Hascall told me. “Then I called a friend who was the assistant rector and told him and he would not believe me and he thought he was dreaming. I got showered and dressed and drove my car behind here.”

Hascall pointed out a window, toward Centre and Park streets. That’s where she watched the scene. The fire was out, the wood smoldering, the emergency lights blinking, her heart breaking.

She got closer and picked up some glass, which broke apart in her hand. She brought home other pieces, those that held together, and still has them.

She also told me she hasn’t forgiven Melanson, who was charged with setting several fires in the Concord area back in 1983 and ’84.

“I know it’s not the Christian thing to do,” she said, “but it still hurts too much.”

Celebrations today and Sunday will help. Outside the meeting area, with its coffee machine and old photos of the church from decades ago, sat Timmy Miller, who has the unenviable volunteer job of searching through pages and pages of names in old books.

Her mission: A final tally of church members baptized, married or buried through the church.

“There were 953 baptisms by 1903,” she told me. Then she went back to counting.

Inside the sanctuary, Hale played the organ, filling the air with music originating from long pipes of different lengths that filled the wall like a city skyline.

A lectern with a gold eagle from the 19th century, once blackened by the fire, had been saved and polished and now sits proudly near the organ.

However, the original reredos – the ornamental screen covering the back wall of the altar, once adorned with a wood-carved depiction of the Last Supper, bishops and angels – had been too badly damaged to return to its display in front of the pews. They remain blackened, stored in an historical cabinet downstairs.

Once, before April 11, 1984, Hascall used to sit up front and lose herself in that artwork, her mind adrift.

“Always, that’s what you saw,” Hascall said. “To some of us, it was something that was so much apart of the church. It is so very missed.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)




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