Lightning-sparked fire destroys century-old Longport church

The century-old Church of the Redeemer in Longport sits charred, and the tower will have to come down.
The century-old Church of the Redeemer in Longport sits charred, and the tower will have to come down. (RON TARVER / Staff)
Posted: July 02, 2012

LONGPORT, N.J. - They had been expected to gather Sunday in the historic and picturesque Church of the Redeemer at 20th and Atlantic Avenues.

Every year from May through September, said town historian and church member Michael Cohen, vacationers and local residents turn out for weekly services at the "mission church" built in 1908.

On this Sunday, worshipers will gather instead on a lawn adjacent to the remains of the Episcopal church, which was gutted in a fire sparked by Saturday's devastating storm.

Officials believe lightning ignited the tower of the 104-year-old Spanish mission revival church, located on a narrow stretch of Longport that overlooks the bay, the ocean just a block behind it.

The church's stucco exterior was severely charred, its roof almost entirely burned, and the historic stained-glass windows all but gone.

A few blocks away, Tom and Bob Subranni sat huddled on their porch in shock. The brothers serve as chair and vice chair of the church board of trustees.

It was Tom who got a phone call in the middle of the storm alerting him that the church was in flames.

"I got about three blocks away, and I saw a glow in the sky," he said. "Then I saw the bell tower in flames. The winds were coming off the bay. I went around to the back. . . . It was burning at both ends. The roof caved in, the bell tower was gone.

"We're in shock. It was scary. . . . It was worse than any hurricane."

The bronze crucifix from the altar, another crucifix used in services, the baptismal fountain, and a handful of prayer books were all that was salvaged, the brothers said.

The fire destroyed the church's historic stained-glass windows, made by Willet Studio, the largest in North America.

The Subrannis and other members have vowed that the Church of the Redemeer will be rebuilt in its exact style, but this time with fire-rated sheetrock.

Sunday's 11 a.m. service will be followed by a meeting of the church trustees to begin planning the project.

Tom Subranni, whose house on 11th Street was severely damaged in a fire a few years ago, said church members had long feared the effects of a fire on the church's wooden frame, which had been seasoned by the salt air over a century.

"I worried about a fire," he said. "That's all it takes, dry wood, seasoned with salt."

Behind the church, a handful of hymnals and prayer books, some charred, were set out to dry.

"To the Glory of God and in loving memory of Paul Phillips and Claire Sciolla, given by Ralph and Anne Sciolla, 1999," read the inscription on one.

"It's like a family member died," said Anne Peterson, who was baptized and married in the church. "The fireman saved a clock that my mother donated; it fell off the wall. Some of the plaques were saved, the Episcopal flag."

Part of the Episcopal Diocese of Trenton, the church has traditionally offered services during the summer months and on some non-summer holidays, said Cohen, the historian.

"The original settlers here were Quakers," he said. "But Joseph Remington, who owned a house on the beach, had the church built for his daughter. She didn't want to be a Quaker. She liked to play the piano."

In the 1930s, Cohen said, Edwin Lavino, then the mayor of Longport, spearheaded a drive to expand, adding the stained-glass windows and a "magnificent" church organ.

The church tower, he said, used to have a blue light "and the mariners would use that light to guide them home."

The tower remained standing Saturday, but Cohen said it would have to be demolished.

"There's a danger of it collapsing," he said. "It will have to come down. . . . But we're going to rebuild."


 


Contact George Anastasia

at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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