Saturday, July 20, 2024

Flames erupt from the Faith Lutheran Church steeple Sunday in Cambridge. (Photo: Mike Connolly)

The steeple at Faith Lutheran Church in The Port neighborhood must be taken down after a six-alarm fire Easter Sunday that persisted for four hours, defying the efforts of firefighters from a dozen cities and towns.

An investigation is underway into the origins of the blaze, and an order to take down the now structurally unsound steeple must wait for that to be complete, said Jeremy Warnick on Monday as director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police.

The removal will be early Tuesday, acting fire chief Tom Cahill told the City Council, but we “may be able to salvage the rest of the building.”

Conditions in the rest of the three-story, stucco-walled church built by the congregation in 1920 are likely to be just as bad. The intensity of the fire pushed crews outside quickly for hours more of battle during which water was blitzed inside relentlessly.

“Neither I nor anyone from the church has been able to see inside,” said the Rev. Robin Lutjohann of Faith Lutheran on Monday. “The front of the structure looks remarkably intact, but walk around to the side and you’ll see huge holes in the roof. And we’re told the top of the steeple is structurally unsound and has to come down.”

Faith Lutheran Church on Monday as officials investigate the origins of a six-alarm fire. (Photo: Mike Connolly via Twitter)

Sunday began with an hourlong 10 a.m. Easter service held in-person and streamed live online, followed by worship by the Eritrean Evangelical Church of Boston from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m.  Officials suggested the fire began about a half-hour later. “Thank god no one was in the building when the fire started,” Lutjohann said. “As far as I know from the [Eritrean Evangelical] church, they’d left” and everything was fine.

What’s next is unclear for Faith Lutheran – a 130-year-old congregation at 311 Broadway near Sennott Park. “We need to figure out the next steps,” starting with a Zoom meeting of a church council Tuesday night. “We have lots of friends and partners in the commune and have received lots of offers of help,” Lutjohann said.

City Manager Yi-An Huang said it was “amazing to see people come together to help.”

Like many Cambridge churches, the congregation at Faith Lutheran is small – around 70 members, the reverend said. But the church hosts a soup kitchen, choirs and kids’ groups, among other things, that will need replacement homes immediately. “There are so many things to do right now,” with much of it relying on volunteers, Lutjohann said. “It’s going to be a very demanding moment, and it’s not always easy to stay on top of it. We definitely have to ask for financial support.”

A four-hour fire is fought Easter Sunday at Faith Lutheran Church in The Port neighborhood of Cambridge. (Photo: Cambridge Police Department via Facebook)

The church stands out for offering services in German, and Lutjohann has referred to Faith Lutheran as “quirky and lovely.”

“It’s quirky in a way Cambridge can be quirky – it’s lovable, brainy, artsy,” Lutjohann said. “It’s a small church and we try to do the best we can. We’re just glad to be sure everyone’s safe.”

Calls of a fire at the church came in at 5:30 p.m., and firefighters arrived to find locked doors and “heavy fire” already inside, officials said. At 6:17 p.m. came an order to forget about fighting the blaze inside where “debris was falling” on crews and transition reluctantly to a “defensive” effort to keep the fire from spreading rather than shutting it down wholly, Cahill said. While he runs a department that prefers to attack fires, the architecture of “this building made it extremely difficult.” Homes and businesses closest to the church were evacuated and water damaged, and fire officials told media on Monday that it may be several days before owners could go back inside. The worst damage was to a neighboring Rock and Roll Daycare and one home.

Traffic disruptions continue as well, Warnick said. Though firefighters finally left the scene at 5:50 p.m. Monday, Cahill said, Broadway will be closed throughout Monday night leading to the removal of the steeple.

Over the course of the fire, mutual aid firefighters and vehicles arrived from Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Brookline, Boston, Chelsea, Lexington, Malden, Medford, Newton, Waltham and Watertown, fire officials said via social media. State police have been called in to help investigate the origins of the fire.

There were approximately 120 fire personnel working at the fire last night including mutual aid companies, Warnick said, citing fire officials. There were firefighters from 18 engine companies, eight ladder companies, three squads, Rescue 1 and approximately 20 command and support vehicles at the scene. Cambridge Police, Professional EMS and Inspectional Services Department staff also worked on scene, and officials credited Cambridge Emergency Communications with playing “a pivotal remote role.” Injuries to firefighters were “extremely minor,” Cahill said, and perhaps only as bad as a couple of broken ribs from pulled muscles.

The same day saw a 10 a.m. kitchen fire on the 17th floor of a high-rise on Memorial Drive, Cahill said.

“What I witnessed those firefighters do was pretty extraordinary,” said state Rep. Mike Connolly, a neighbor of the church who said on Tuesday he stopped by to talk with people on the scene – and learned that while the steeple likely couldn’t be saved, its cross might be. “It has to be the biggest fire in my legislative district since the St. Patrick’s Place fire late 2016,” he said. “It’s a miracle no one was seriously hurt, that none of the surrounding buildings suffered fire damage, and the immediate collapse of the steeple was avoided.”