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Wakefield congregation is resolute even as its church’s future is in doubt

The remains of the First Baptist Church of Wakefield. The congregation held services Sunday at the nearby First Parish Congregational Church.
The remains of the First Baptist Church of Wakefield. The congregation held services Sunday at the nearby First Parish Congregational Church.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

WAKEFIELD — “Sometimes, good things fall apart so that better things can fall into place.”

With these words, the Rev. Norman Bendroth, interim pastor for First Baptist Church of Wakefield, sought to comfort congregants still reeling from the Tuesday night fire that destroyed its nearly 150-year-old building and robbed the town of a distinctive element of its skyline.

More than 50 parishioners and visitors gathered Sunday morning at First Parish Congregational Church, just a block away from the blackened rubble where they once worshipped, to pray for healing and rebirth.

They met inside the Covell Memorial Chapel, just feet from a painting depicting an eerily familiar scene: Whorls of black smoke billow as orange tendrils of flame soar skyward and glow within the silhouetted rectangles and arches of windows.

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The composition depicts the 1909 burning of the Congregational Church, a disaster that prompted First Baptist to offer space to offer space for its services. Now the Congregational Church is repaying the generosity.

“In some small way, you just feel like we can express our love and reflect God’s love to them, and that’s what it’s all about,” said Pam Hodgson, 64, of Reading, a parishioner at the Congregational Church. Hodgson said its doors would be open to First Baptist for as long as it needs the space.

The distinctive 1872 Baptist church, with its 180-foot spire that soared above the town common on the shore of Lake Quannapowitt and was visible for miles, will not return.

What will rise in its place — on a desirable plot of land at the center of Wakefield — is unclear, Bendroth and congregants said Sunday.

“Do we rebuild? Relocate? Do we start a new church?” Bendroth said during his sermon. “Do we merge? Do we become a totally different ministry by building a community center that houses a church, and perhaps elderly housing? Who knows? These are the kinds of questions that we’ll be pondering in the months ahead.”

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First Baptist will hold services at the Congregational Church indefinitely, Bendroth said in an interview after the service. After the church’s insurance company completes its assessment, the reimbursement will be large enough to allow it to rebuild, Bendroth said, but it is “premature to even think about next steps.”

“We have to think outside of the box, because you can’t do church like you used to,” he said. “We’re in the 21st century.”

The Baptist church was destroyed after a lightening strike caused a fire.
The Baptist church was destroyed after a lightening strike caused a fire. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Congregants have begun weighing the church’s options, and some have strong opinions.

Mary Borges, 81, and her daughter, Louise DeSisto, 41, both of Wakefield, said they would like to see First Baptist rebuilt at the same site, but on a smaller scale.

“It was a huge church. . . . Years ago, they used to have the town meetings and everything there, because they didn’t have a hall,” said Borges, a parishioner since 1968.

“We’re a much smaller church now. It’s a lot of upkeep,” said DeSisto, a lifelong member of the congregation.

Robert Jordan, 63, attended the church only five or six Sundays before the fire, he said, and he feels it was “a blessing” that he had the opportunity to know the space.

“I went to church on Sunday, and two days later it didn’t exist,” said Jordan, who has lived in Wakefield since he was 10. He plans to become a church member, he said, and is keeping an open mind about what will happen with the site.

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“I just hope they don’t make condos or something like that,” he said. “I’d like to see them stay there, but it’s whatever God’s will is.”

Weimin Feng, 62, of Holliston, said he came to the church 35 years ago as an international student at Tufts University.

As a newcomer from China, Feng was on hard times, he said. But 78 families and individual parishioners volunteered to sponsor Feng, while members Richard and Ruth Bridge took him into their home, where he continued living for eight years as a member of their family.

Feng, who credits the church for much of the happiness he has found in the United States, feels strongly about its future.

“We’re going to rebuild this church in its original location,” he said, “no matter what.”

More than 50 parishioners and visitors gathered Sunday morning at First Parish Congregational Church, just a block away from the blackened rubble where they once worshipped, to pray for healing and rebirth.
More than 50 parishioners and visitors gathered Sunday morning at First Parish Congregational Church, just a block away from the blackened rubble where they once worshipped, to pray for healing and rebirth.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.