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Pastor Says Church Will ‘Absolutely’ Rebuild

  • The First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., is shown in the upper right near downtown in a 1986 aerial photograph. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dean Pelotte, left, and Andrew Wilcox of Steeple Jacks Builders hang from the steeple of the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., while painting and replacing shingles on the structure on October 16, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Church member David Rataj, left, speaks with Adam Fanjoy of the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal's Office next to the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 29, 2016. The church was destroyed by fire late Wednesday night. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Fire sweeps through and billows 150 feet into the air on February 21, 1992, as the First United Methodist Church burned on School Street in Lebanon, N.H. The wood-framed building, built in the 1800s was almost entirely consumed by fire. (Valley News - Robert Pope) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., in an undated photograph. (Lebanon Historical Society photograph)

  • The sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., in 2012. (Lebanon Historical Society photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2016

Lebanon — Even after convening at the parsonage Thursday morning to pray and plan the road forward, the First Baptist Church of Lebanon leadership team lacked answers to several questions.

Among them were what started the fire that gutted their beloved church late Wednesday night, and where would they hold their service this weekend.

Despite those unknowns, two things were certain: the church community will rebound from its grief, and the church will be rebuilt, the Rev. Rick Pinilla said from inside the parsonage late Thursday morning.

“Oh, absolutely,” the pastor said without skipping a beat when asked if a rebuild was in the cards.

“We belong here,” Pinilla said. “This is our home.”

When exactly the church will be rebuilt also falls into that category of unknowns, but Pinilla said he hopes it will be “soon.” The church’s insurance is in good standing, he added.

Until a rebuild can happen, the First Baptist Church will continue to pursue its mission.

“We are here for the sake of Jesus Christ and to serve our community,” Pinilla said.

The church community is actively working toward answers to the unknowns and by Thursday night had found a place to hold its worship service. The service will be held at 10 a.m. on Sunday at the Masonic Lodge at 25 Green St., just down the road from the church.

One of the leadership team’s first priorities is to make sure the people who depend on the church and its services — which includes a food pantry and a weekly community dinner — will continue to be served despite the lack of a dedicated assembly space.

For decades, the First Baptist Church has offered a range of services and a space for groups to hold meetings, including for people in recovery.

Lebanon resident Mark Courtemansche said he used to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings there more than two decades ago. He also was a longtime volunteer.

“This church saved me,” Courtemansche said as he looked up at the charred remains of the building where he was married in May. “I am devastated; I can’t understand this. I am trying to picture how it used to look.”

Founded in 1860 by a group of 26 men and women to serve a growing Baptist community in Lebanon, First Baptist Church built a small chapel on Green Street, which was then briefly used as a high school.

The present-day church opened in 1870 at the corner of School and Green streets, and was protected as a historical landmark in Lebanon, according to the church’s website.

The Rev. Dale Edwards, who served as pastor of First Baptist for 25 years, said “the church always had a very extensive ministry.”

During the Great Depression, Edwards said, it offered a Sunday school program that served 100 children who lived in tenements connected to Lebanon mills, providing them with a cup of soup and half of a sandwich before they went home.

“It was probably one of the most socioeconomically diverse churches you could find,” said Edwards, who now is region minister for the American Baptist Churches of Vermont and New Hampshire, based in West Lebanon.

Today, the First Baptist congregation includes more than 200 members, and about 50 to 70 people regularly attend services.

It had stood “as the city’s finest example of Gothic Revival architecture,” according to Lebanon, 1761-1994 by Roger Carroll, but as of early Thursday, a very different building stood on the spot in downtown Lebanon.

The glass in the arched window was smashed, the steeple was only a skeleton that many worried would collapse, and the paint on the building was ashy and gray.

But First Baptist parishioners don’t have to look far for inspiration.

In 1992, the nearby United Methodist Church was destroyed in a fire, 160 years after it was built. That fire was ruled arson, caused by two young men who had broken into the church and used candles to light their path.

One of the youths later admitted to his role and attended services and apologized.

The Methodist church rallied back after that fire, and saw an uptick in membership. The community raised more than $50,000 and a new church was dedicated in 1994, Carroll wrote.

United Methodist Church Pastor Becca Girrell said the fire felt “a little bit like reliving the past.”

“I thought ‘not again, not another one,’ ” Girrell said as she surveyed the damage on Thursday.

Girrell said she and members of her church are ready to help in any way they can, something several onlookers echoed as they looked in shock at the fragile steeple.

Though the church building likely is a total loss, Pinilla, the First Baptist pastor, offered one reminder to those suffering from the tragedy.

“The church is not a building,” he said. “It is a community of people.”

Those who wish to donate to the First Baptist Church can do so at Mascoma Savings Bank or online at bit.ly/2hxFFC2.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.