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Blaze is unable to damage spirit of Beverly congregation

Church will be gutted, rebuilt

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

From left, Judith Seal, Sue Gauthier, and Connie Corning prayed during a service held in the parking lot of the First Assembly of God Church in Beverly.

BEVERLY - Steps from the church severely damaged by a fire a week ago, members of the small congregation gathered in the parking lot yesterday to worship, looking forward to a new beginning and giving thanks that no one was injured in the blaze.

The fire broke out at the First Assembly of God Church on Dolloff Avenue at about 4:40 p.m. last Monday. Firefighters arrived quickly, but the blaze caused $400,000 to $600,000 of damage, said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Chester L. Gray III.

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Gray said that insurance will cover the rebuilding costs and that a number of area churches have offered support.

“We thank you, Lord, that you have brought a body of people from all over the country to pray for us,’’ said Gray, wearing a green parka over a blazer and tie. “We have felt those prayers.’’

Gray said it was amazing that no one was injured in the blaze because there was “an explosion of flames’’ just before firefighters entered the building.

Power strips in the music area of the sanctuary had too many devices plugged into them and overheated, sparking the fire, Beverly Fire Chief Paul Cotter said last week. Carpeted floors helped spread the blaze.

Inside the sanctuary yesterday, charred pews had been pushed to the side so burnt carpeting could be ripped up. Insulation formed a canopy, hanging from the ceiling, which flames had licked bare. In the corner where the fire started lay ashen pieces, still distinguishable as a piano.

‘This is an illustration of the fact that all material things will pass away from us. Everything must see change.’

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But the lectern, though blackened, still stood at the pulpit. Gray said he found the church Bible there after the fire, its binding singed but its pages intact.

Gray said the church will be stripped to its frame and be built back up. Work to clear the church of damaged items is ongoing, and construction is expected to be done in six months.

The church shared the building with the Brazilian Assembly of God congregation, which has about 80 members, Gray said. The Brazilian church has found temporary accommodations at a Nazarene church on Cabot Street, North Beverly. The congregation will hold services there for about six months.

Although the Brazilian congregation has insurance, it will not cover all their losses, Gray said.

Next Sunday, the First Assembly of God congregation, which has about 20 members, will hold an 11 a.m. service at Immanuel Congregational Church on Bridge Street, Gray said.

After Gray’s opening prayer, the attendees - about 40 in number, including congregants from the Brazilian church and friends - belted out two hymns, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Because of the cold weather, the 11 a.m. service, which was held in the parking lot, was a short 35 minutes.

“There are things that occur in life that are not expected,’’ John Penny, a former pastor who held the post for 28 years, said to the congregation. “This is an illustration of the fact that all material things will pass away from us. Everything must see change.’’

Penny, 81, of Somersworth N.H., said this is not an end, but “the start of something really good.’’

Penny’s son, Bill Penny of Haverhill, played guitar at the service. He has been going to the church since 1967.

After learning of the fire, “I had a whole range of emotions,’’ he said. “I felt shock, grief. There are things in there that can’t be replaced.’’

Nonetheless, Penny said a drum set he kept in the building survived.

Connie Higley, 60, of Salem, who has attended the church since 1980, made curtains for the windows that were destroyed in the fire, but said that is not on her mind. “A lot of memories are gone, but we’ll have a new life as a church now,’’ she said.

Christopher J. Girard can be reached at chrisjgirard@gmail.com.
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