Man Dies in Fire at Historic Grafton Church at Center of Tax Exemption Dispute

Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Grafton — State fire officials said a man was found dead in the aftermath of a two-alarm fire that broke out at a historic church on Route 4 that has been at the center of a long-running tax exemption dispute.

Keith Rodenhiser, an investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said officials on Tuesday evening were not prepared to identify the victim nor divulge details about the cause of the fire.

“We are in the early stages of this investigation,” Rodenhiser said Tuesday night. “We can confirm that there is a fire fatality associated with this incident.”

Firefighters were alerted around 11 a.m. to the blaze, which caused extensive damage to the interior and exterior of the church. Fire crews battled the flames throughout the afternoon and weren’t able to enter the structure to search for possible victims until about 5 p.m.

“We are still assessing the safety and the structural integrity of the building to make sure that we can conduct our investigation safely,” Rodenhiser said.

The more than 200-year-old sanctuary in recent years has been home to Peaceful Assembly Church, the founder of which, John Connell, lived at the church. His whereabouts were unknown as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Canaan fire Chief Bill Bellion. His cars were parked nearby.

Grafton fire Chief John Babiarz said flames were showing from a second-story window when his crew arrived Tuesday morning.

The fire eventually drew a response from more than a half-dozen towns, including Lebanon and Hanover, which brought ladder trucks to the scene. The church’s bell tower caused concerns throughout the day, but ladders were stretched to the top of the steeple and firefighters poured water on the area for hours.

It was too soon to tell whether the church was a total loss, Babiarz said Tuesday night. Much of the structure still was standing after the fire was brought under control around 4:45 p.m. By then, the fire had burned for nearly six hours.

“I think we have enough material to give to the state investigators to try and figure out the exact cause,” Babiarz said.

Grafton Selectboard Chairman Sean Frost, who was on site for much of the day, said Connell purchased the building in 2010 and later transferred ownership to the church’s Board of Directors.

The church has been involved in a yearslong battle with the town over its religious tax exemption, Frost said.

The town of Grafton has voted several times to deny Peaceful Assembly Church’s application for tax-exempt status, and the church has an appeal pending in Grafton Superior Court, according to Seth Hipple, a Concord attorney for Peaceful Assembly.

“We didn’t feel they provided the proof that it was an operating church,” Frost said Tuesday.

According to town records, the church owes nearly $14,000 in back taxes.

On Jan. 6, the town served the board a notice saying the Selectboard voted to begin the process of taking back the church via tax deed.

The church, built in 1798, has long been a community gathering place, serving not only as a place of worship but also as the town meetinghouse and a place for marriages and funerals.

Prior to Connell, Grafton Center Congregational Church owned the building for decades. When Pastor Tom Warner and the congregation decided to build a new church, nearby Millbrook Christian Fellowship, they put the building up for sale, and Connell purchased it.

“It is extremely sad to see,” Warner said as he watched dark smoke billow out of the white church. “I spent a lot of years here.”

Myric McBain, a member of Warner’s congregation, shared that sentiment.

“It’s a shame,” McBain said. “It is hard to see the old meetinghouse like this.”

Grafton Historical Society President Kenneth Cushing, a former longtime Selectboard member, said the building was “the soul of the town.”

It served as the town meetinghouse while hosting a congregation; the parish took full ownership in 1963, he said.

In a Facebook post, the historical society said the fire was “our worst fears, realized.”

“It’s been such a presence for so many years, and the thing of it is, it’s very prominent,” Cushing said. “It’s a part of Grafton’s history.”

Cushing said a segment of townspeople have been “grousing” in recent years about the state of the church, including the purple-painted trim and what they considered to be “a lot of clutter” bordering on “desecration.”

“People started to feel squeamish about such a spectacle,” he said.

John Redman, who until recently was the pastor of Peaceful Assembly Church, said the church had a membership of about 80 people, but only five to eight folks would show up for monthly bible studies.

Redman, who was on scene, said he resigned from pastor after the board of directors filled a vacancy with someone with whom he had differences.

Redman confirmed Connell lived inside the church.

“We believe he is deceased,” Redman said, remembering Connell as a “nice guy” who was “very much into believing in forgiveness.”

Paul Vogt, an acquaintance of Connell’s who was on scene all day Tuesday, said he also feared the unidentified victim was Connell.

If a body was found in there, “it had to be John’s,” he said.

This fire was reported on www.vnews.com Tuesday. Staff writer Maggie Cassidy contributed to this report. Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.