Conshohocken church rising from its own ashes

The Rev. Bradley E. Lacey and his congregation at the First Baptist Church at Conshohocken are celebrating completion of the first stage of rebuilding from a 2005 fire.
The Rev. Bradley E. Lacey and his congregation at the First Baptist Church at Conshohocken are celebrating completion of the first stage of rebuilding from a 2005 fire. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 07, 2014

The toils and snares that led the First Baptist Church at Conshohocken to what it describes as an amazing new year back home were sparked by an errant blowtorch.

It touched off a fire that engulfed the Neo-Gothic church built in 1902 and flattened everything but its bell tower and an adjacent stone wall.

That was eight years ago.

It has taken that long for the congregation of 60 to muster the money and labor that has enabled them to spend the start of 2014 in their new building at Fourth Avenue and Harry Street.

"It's such a feeling of victory," said Eva Ross, 84, a longtime church member.

The congregation is celebrating completion of the first stage of a $3 million rebuilding that it had no idea would be eight years in the making.

Members are holding services in the fellowship hall, where they have a temporary occupancy permit. They held their first service there the Sunday before Thanksgiving. A formal dedication is planned for February or March.

But amid the celebration is the recognition that the church still has a long way to go. Classrooms, offices, a dining facility, and the sanctuary have yet to be completed.

"We don't really have a timeline," said the Rev. Bradley E. Lacey, the church pastor. He said he was leaving that to be determined by a divine reconstruction plan.

Members' early expectations of rebuilding quickly gave way to a sobering reality.

"I thought it would be 21/2 years, maybe three," said Page Tyler of Plymouth Meeting, a lay leader at the church. "It took that just to work out the insurance."

Rebuilding stalled

First Baptist caught fire early on May 10, 2005. Lacey had just walked home after a coffee run and was sitting down with his wife, Peggy, in the parsonage adjacent to the church.

"We had a repairmen working on the roof [with a blowtorch], and I looked out the window at the church and heard, 'Call the Fire Department!' Then they started jumping off the roof," Lacey said.

The church was virtually destroyed within an hour. A portion of a stone wall and the bell tower remained standing.

The next Sunday, the congregation held services at the Fellowship House of Conshohocken, a community center a block away. The congregation stayed there for eight years.

During that time, rebuilding efforts repeatedly stalled.

First, the church endured a long arbitration to decide whether its insurance company or the church would receive a $1 million payment from the roofing company's insurance. The church was awarded $750,000, Lacey said.

Then, a contractor began erecting the new church, getting as far the as outer shell, and the price of steel skyrocketed. The church could not afford to continue and stopped construction.

Work resumed several years later, but with volunteer skilled labor largely supplied by Kingdom Builders, a volunteer construction team affiliated with the American Baptist Churches of Pennsylvania and Delaware, the congregation's denomination and conference.

Church members also pitched in. Eva Ross' husband, Edward, a retired maintenance worker, helped oversee construction. He hung drywall and installed windows.

"The ladies helped a lot with painting and spackling," Eva Ross said.

Along the way, Conshohocken, an old mill town shaped by immigrant residents and now transformed by shiny new office buildings, supported them.

"We felt bad that it took them this long," said town historian Brian Coll, whose family owns a frame shop near the church.

The Fellowship House did not charge rent. Donations, sometimes as much as $30,000, came in. Neighboring businesses and churches held fund-raisers, including Joseph DelBuono Inc. of Conshohocken, the roofing company whose worker had accidentally caused the fire, Lacey said.

The church could have sued the roofing company, which is a few blocks away on Fourth Avenue. But it did not.

The congregation instead wanted to focus on the work ahead - the church's construction and mission.

"We felt a lawsuit would be spiritually destructive," Lacey said. "We realized it was a freak accident."

People at the roofing company - which annually offers one pro-bono job to local congregations - had been devastated by the fire, Lacey said.

When it came time to put on a roof on the new building, the church offered the job to the DelBuono firm, and it accepted, Lacey said.

Officials at DelBuono could not be reached.

Place of their own

During the eight years the church spent at Fellowship House, the small congregation lost a few members to attrition and dissatisfaction with the long wait. But several new members joined.

The congregation remained largely united, even amid the setbacks and uncertainty about when and how the rest of the rebuilding would be done.

Peggy Lacey calls it a challenge that has increased their faith, helping to sustain the congregation.

Tyler said he was content finally to be in a place of their own.

"It not the home of the old building," Tyler said. "It just feels like it's where we're supposed to be."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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