OCEAN CITY — A little over four months after the fatal fire at a historic downtown church that claimed the lives of two individuals, the leadership of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Ocean City has decided to demolish the rectory building where the tragic blaze occurred.
On Nov. 26, 2013, Ocean City Communications received a call in reference to a fire at the St. Paul’s by the Sea Episcopal Church on Baltimore Ave. at 3rd Street. First arriving units found fire coming from the church rectory. The investigation revealed a suspect, later identified as John Raymond Sterner, 56, of Ocean City, had purchased gasoline at a nearby gas station, doused himself and ignited the fire in front of the church rectory and its Shepherd’s Crook and then walked into the facility fully engulfed in flames.
Sterner then came into contact with a female church employee, Dana Truitt, 42, of Ocean City, and attempted to hug her while engulfed in flames. The employee was able to push by Sterner, but not before catching on fire and sustaining severe burns. Truitt survived and is on the long road to recovery. Sterner died during the incident, as did the beloved church pastor Rev. David Dingwall, who was discovered unconscious on the second floor of the rectory and later succumbed to his injuries at AGH.
In the months since, the St. Paul’s by-the-Sea community has been attempting to recover from the tragedy, spiritually and literally, and faces hard decisions about the future of the parish. The severely damaged church rectory has been a physical reminder of the incident as church leaders have wrestled with the decision to restore the historic building or demolish it. Last week, the church pastor, the Rev. Dr. Mark Cyr and the church Vestry, decided on the latter after considering many options.
In the wake of the fire, substantial changes are in the works for the historic church and its sanctuary including the installation of a sprinkler system for the entire St. Paul’s campus downtown. After months of collecting surveys and garnering the opinion of the parish community, Cyr and the Vestry decided last week demolishing the damaged rectory was the best course of action to allow the larger improvements for the church to move forward. Cyr announced the decision to the parish in a letter released last week.
“The Vestry was particularly interested in deciding whether to renovate the rectory or demolish it and seek other possibilities for church offices and the Shepherd’s Crook,” the letter reads. “It was not an easy meeting. We know that many are anxious to resume our worship in the sanctuary. We also know that the parish is pretty evenly divided between renovating the rectory and demolishing it. These two are intrinsically connected because we cannot begin the necessary work in the sanctuary without knowing what is going to happen to the rectory.”
In the letter, Cyr said after much soul searching and prayer, church leaders defined where the parish is now and where it hopes to be in the future. Once the parish was able to define itself, it was time to make the first hard decisions in the reconstruction process and that included the future of the rectory.
In order to get back into the sanctuary, a sprinkler system must be installed throughout the entire campus and in order to determine the scope of the sprinkler system and its supporting piping and pump system, the parish has to develop a master plan for the entire campus. In order to develop a master plan, the fate of the rectory had to be decided and after much deliberation, the decision was made to demolish it.
“After an intensive and intentional afternoon of prayer, reflection, review of survey results, open discussion and weighing the pros and cons of either decision, tear down or restore, the Vestry voted to tear down the rectory,” the letter reads. “This was not an easy process, but the Vestry realized that there are more possibilities available to us to exercise our ministries if we are not constrained with the present building.”
St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Senior Warden Bob Rothermel this week agreed the decision to demolish the rectory was not an easy one.
“Everyone has an opinion of that might be the best way to move forward,” he said. “We surveyed the parish and made a decision based on what believe is the best direction for the church at this point.”
Rothermel said the church leadership is not certain whether a new rectory will be built or other options will be explored.
“We haven’t decided what to do next,” he said. “We could decide to rebuild on the same site, or maybe we decide not to do anything. We might decide to think outside the box and utilize other buildings in the area for our offices and ministries. These are decisions we will have to make, but in the short term, the decision has been made to demolish the old rectory building.”
Rothermel said demolishing the old rectory will allow the parish to get back into its sanctuary and make the improvements needed to sustain it into the future.
“It was a decision we had to make in order to move forward,” he said. “The community has been very supportive. It’s been incredible. This decision will allow us to move forward with even a better church.”