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Grafton Church Founder Identified as Fire Victim

Thursday, January 14, 2016
Grafton — Friends remembered John Connell, the 57-year-old pastor at the Peaceful Assembly Church who police said died in a fire there on Tuesday, as a good listener who helped guide people through their problems while preaching forgiveness and nonviolence.

“It’s an incredible, tragic loss,” said fellow Grafton resident Brian Fellers, Connell’s friend. “It’s a shame that the church burned. ... It can be replaced, but John is an irreplaceable human force for good. There’s just no two ifs, ands or buts about it. He lived the way he preached.”

Connell was inside the Route 4 church building when it was heavily damaged in a two-alarm fire that was reported around 11 a.m. Tuesday. He lived in an apartment inside.

Departments from several Upper Valley towns worked for nearly six hours to bring the fire under control. Rescuers could not complete a search of the building until late afternoon because of concerns about the structure’s integrity, and Connell’s body was retrieved Tuesday evening, said Stacey Dubois, district chief with the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal’s Office.

A Wednesday morning autopsy by the state medical examiner showed that Connell died of smoke inhalation, according to a news release from the fire marshal.

Standing at the scene on Wednesday, Dubois said that investigators, who were being assisted by Grafton fire and police personnel, were “still (in) the very early stages of the investigation.”

Investigators were not ready to say where Connell was found or where they believe the fire may have started, Dubois said. No possibilities have been ruled out as far as the fire’s cause, she said.

While Connell’s cause of death is smoke inhalation, she said, the “actual manner of death (and) circumstances surrounding the cause is still under investigation.”

Dubois and Grafton fire Chief John Babiarz said the building, though damaged, was safe enough for investigators to continue their work. The long-term fate of the structure, which was built in 1798 and long served as the town meetinghouse, is to be determined, Babiarz said.

According to a 2011 video interview on YouTube by the group Liberty on Tour, Connell moved to New Hampshire more than a decade ago after being drawn to the area as a young man. He was pleased to find out the newly forming Free State Project also was setting up shop in the state at the time.

“I thought, oh, ‘icing on the cake,’ ” Connell said in the video. “Like-minded folks coming together, same kind of reasons I wanted to come here.”

He bought the church building and founded the Peaceful Assembly Church when the former congregation was selling it and the town was not interested in buying it, he said in the video. He later would battle the town on taxes, saying the building, as a church, was exempt.

In the video, he said he felt a Selectboard member assumed that because Connell was a “freedom guy,” he was buying the building just to avoid taxes, which Connell disputed.

“I wouldn’t buy a church and live in a church to try to be funny and tricky and all that,” Connell said in the video. “There’s other ways to do it.”

Tensions appeared to be coming to a head as of late. According to town records, the church owes nearly $14,000 in back taxes. About a week ago, the town served the church’s Board of Directors a notice saying the Selectboard had voted to begin the process of taking back the church via tax deed.

Fellers and another of Connell’s friends in Grafton, Pete Thoresen, said tensions also were swelling between Connell and the church board over disagreement about how to move forward with the tax battle.

Both men expressed concerns about the circumstances surrounding Connell’s death.

Posts on the church website purported to be written by Connell spoke to some of those tensions. In one post dated Nov. 18, Connell wrote that he was “prepared to (lose) everything — including my life — rather than get into fighting with the government.”

Later in that post, he raised concerns about another person in the church, accusing the person of having a “propensity toward violence.”

Attempts to reach board members of Peaceful Assembly on Wednesday afternoon were not successful.

News of Connell’s death sparked an outpouring of sadness on the Peaceful Assembly Church Facebook page, where members and friends of Connell recalled him in high regard. Canaan resident Angela Tibbets, a member of the church’s Facebook group, said in a Facebook message to the Valley News that Connell taught her forgiveness , which “put some peace in my heart.”

“He loved his classic rock and often used songs instead of commenting on a (Facebook) post,” Tibbets said.

Fellers, a Planning Board member who said he agrees with the principles of decentralized government, said Connell had a knack for connecting people within libertarian and religious circles — two groups that often are seen as separate and unrelated.

Fellers himself is not very religious, he said, but Connell’s ability to listen and give poignant advice during Fellers’ divorce two years ago was profoundly helpful.

“A lot of people said, ‘You have to move on, you got to get angry,’ ” Fellers recalled. “He said you didn’t need to do that. ... He talked about patience. He was a pacifist — he doesn’t believe in violence, he’s nonviolent to the umpteenth (degree). He lived that way.”

Thoresen remembered Connell as a smart, philosophical person who enjoyed playing guitar and visiting Kilton Pond, and served as “a minister in the sense of helping people.”

Some people perceived Connell as eccentric, Thoresen said, but ultimately Connell “fully embraced his principles.”

“John advocated nonviolent, peaceful resolution,” Thoresen said. “His hero was Martin Luther King Jr., and he really practiced what he preached.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at or 603-727-3220.

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