Saturday, July 20, 2024

A crane prepares to lift the damaged steeple at Cambridge’s Faith Lutheran Church on Tuesday. (Photo: Robin Lutjohann)

In the aftermath of a six-alarm fire Easter Sunday at Faith Lutheran Church, a 114-year-old steeple was removed Tuesday and a crowdfunding campaign was started for the structure’s eventual rebuilding.

“We don’t know yet what the recovery and reconstruction of our building will entail,” said Kristin Griffin, organizer of the $100,000 campaign on GoFundMe asking for community contributions. “Given the small size of our congregation and its humble financial resources, we know that the cost involved will challenge us significantly. That is why we are asking for your help.”

As of Wednesday night, the fund was at around $31,490 from 188 donations, or almost a third of the way to its goal for the church at 311 Broadway in The Port neighborhood of Cambridge.

The fire persisted for four hours, defying the efforts of firefighters from a dozen cities and towns. The Cambridge Fire Department said Wednesday that the cause was still under investigation.

The three-story, stucco-walled church with a roof of slate clay tiles was built by working-class Swedish immigrants in 1909, the church said, over the years serving waves of immigrants that included the Swedish, Taiwanese, Ethiopian, Eritrean and German. Some Faith Lutheran services are conducted in German, and the building’s final use before the 5:30 p.m. fire was a 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. service by an Eritrean congregation from Boston. No congregant or visitor was in the building when the fire broke out.

Faith Lutheran, seen Tuesday with the steeple lifted away. (Photo: Robin Lutjohann)

Acting fire chief Tom Cahill told city councillors on Monday that the handsome church architecture made fighting the fire complicated.

“This particular building, with the heavy timber construction, 50-foot ceilings in the chapel area and almost 100 feet from the lobby up to the top of the steeple, made it extremely difficult to do to do our job,” Cahill said. Not long into the battle firefighters found “there was so much fire that debris was falling from the steeple on top of them.” After 25 minutes trying to fight the fire from inside, firefighters who pulled out to go on the defensive had to watch for tiles sliding out from the roof.

At 7:42 p.m. came a warning there was a “distinct cracking coming from the steeple.” Fire crews were warned to maintain an appropriate stand-off distance in case it came down.

Though the steeple didn’t fall, Cambridge fire officials met early Monday with engineers to discuss whether it was safe to leave it up for eventual reconstruction – and the answer was no. “Beyond that, I feel comfortable that we may be able to salvage that building,” Cahill said.

The steeple is brought to rest on Prospect street next to the church. (Photo: Robin Lutjohann)

The removal of the steeple was an hourslong process that began setting up at around 8:30 a.m. The structure was severed and lifted whole by a crane, then set down intact behind the neighboring Rock and Roll Daycare and the home behind it on Prospect Street. The church, which planned to save the cross atop the steeple, has erected a fence and boarded up the ground floor, the Rev. Robin Lutjohann said.

The exterior walls of the church look well-preserved despite the hours of flames and pounding water; the roof of the structure behind the Broadway facade is badly damaged, and the building’s interiors. “Our hearts are broken. Yet inspired by the love and tenacity of our forebears, we go forward,” Griffin said in the crowdfunding campaign. “We hope to restore this property to being a useful and beautiful contribution to this city.”

“We are hoping for an Easter miracle, a resurrection,” Griffin said.

Community springs up

In the meantime, the Islamic Society of Boston Mosque on Prospect Street welcomed the Faith Lutheran congregation of some 70 members for the Wednesday evening prayers known as Vespers. Sunday worship was moved to the Pentecostal Tabernacle Church on Columbia Street. A biweekly free supper called the Faith Kitchen remains with Faith Lutheran’s partner in the 20-year tradition, Temple Beth Shalom on Tremont Street.

Lutjohann addressed the generosity in a Wednesday newsletter.

“This moment has brought out a lot of good in people, for which I am so, so grateful,” Lutjohann said. “I have been lifted up by the love, generosity and affection poured out on us from across the street and all over the world. It is like the whole city was praying for us – and you could feel it. There is so much goodness, so much kindness here.”

City Manager Yi-An Huang said Monday he was impressed by the city’s firefighters, Faith Lutheran and Cambridge’s broader community. “There’s so much sadness to just see what’s what’s happened, but it’s also really incredible to see the community that’s sprung up to support the church,” Huang said.