Historic church burns in New Year’s blaze

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office Arson Task Force has yet to determine the cause or origin of the three-alarm fire that severely damaged the nearly 200-year old St. Mark’s Episcopal Church early New Year’s Day, though a spokeswoman did say that nothing at this stage of the investigation indicates that the blaze was suspicious.

Essex County Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman Katherine Carter told the West Orange Chronicle that investigators cannot make an official determination until all debris is removed from the property. Once they have an opportunity to examine the location thoroughly, Carter said they might be able to see what caused the church — which is included on both the national and state registers of historic places — to go up in flames.

Meanwhile, West Orange spokeswoman Susan Anderson told the Chronicle that the township had issued a notice of unsafe structure to the property owner, the International Federation of Chaplains, based on the present condition of the building on Jan. 4, just after the Jan. 1 fire that gutted the building. Though Anderson was not aware what this notice specified, such notices typically instruct property owners to demolish or repair a building deemed to be unsafe within a given time limit.

Chaplain Douglas Hernandez is a federation member and trustee of the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church, which had occupied the building since March 2015 when the federation purchased the property from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. He told the Chronicle in a Jan. 5 phone interview that Iglesia de Dios had not yet decided what to do with the building in light of the notice of unsafe structure. He said the congregation is waiting for an engineer to assess the damage and condition of what remains. In a Jan. 4 phone interview before the notice was issued, Hernandez had told the Chronicle that the congregation was hoping to rebuild the church, which had its steeple and four stone walls still intact following the fire; however, the flames did gut the interior and cause the roof to collapse.

First responders were alerted to the blaze a little before 5 a.m. on Jan.1, thanks to a smoke alarm in the church’s basement, according to Anderson. She said that it took the West Orange Fire Department and units from seven surrounding towns — including Millburn, Orange and East Orange — approximately three hours to extinguish the flames. The building was empty at the time of the fire and no one was injured, she said.

In the end, this Main Street landmark was left a shell of its former self and the roughly 200 to 250 members of the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church were left without a house of worship. Yet even with these dire circumstances, Hernandez told the Chronicle that the congregation remains “in high spirits.” He only lamented that the tragedy occurred just as the congregation was about to become more involved with the township.

“It was a sad thing just because it happened at the start of the New Year, when we had a lot of high expectations of coming in and reaching out to the community and implementing new outreach programs,” Hernandez said in a Jan. 4 phone interview, adding that Iglesia de Dios had even participated in the Police and Clergy Alliance meeting in October 2015 as a start. “But, nonetheless, everybody is doing well.”

Moving forward, Hernandez said the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church will hold services at its previous worship site at 827 Clinton Ave. in Newark, where it had resided for 25 years. He said the church did have insurance for its West Orange property, which he expects to cover the damage.

As for the cause of the fire, Hernandez said the congregation has no idea what could have ignited the flames. He said a New Year’s celebration had been held on the property the previous night, but all food had been cooked elsewhere. At a press conference after the fire, he said that the building’s wiring, while old, still worked properly.

Anderson confirmed to the Chronicle that the township did issue a notice of violation to Iglesia de Dios on Sept. 28, 2015, for failing to obtain the necessary permits and approval for installing two commercial HVAC units. She said professional design drawings and a complete application were never submitted to the township as required. As a result, Iglesia de Dios paid a $2,000 fine.

Hernandez also confirmed to the Chronicle that the township had penalized Iglesia de Dios for doing work without the proper permits and approval — he called it a “stop-work order,” though Anderson stressed it was actually a “notice of violation.” But the chaplain clarified that the HVAC units had actually never been installed, but simply brought to the site.

He further said that the only HVAC-related work that had been completed without the necessary documentation was the removal of a stained-glass window and the mounting of a duct in its place, in preparation for a unit. He said no electrical work had been done.

After being penalized, Hernandez said the congregation worked with the township to satisfy all building and historical restrictions in readying all required material to apply for permits and approval. In fact, he said the church was actually days away from submitting the proper documentation to build at the church when the fire broke out.

Aside from that, Hernandez said PSE&G had acquired a permit to install a new gas line in the area, and that Iglesia de Dios had acquired a permit to connect that PSE&G line with its own line to the building. PSE&G then installed a new gas meter on the property, he said.

Investigators have not indicated as of press time whether any of that work could have played a role in the fire.

And although its church building may soon be demolished, Hernandez said the congregation has no intention of leaving West Orange. On the contrary, the chaplain said Iglesia de Dios’ community still plans to make a difference through serving the township despite the unfortunate setback.

“We’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to re-establish and resume our ministry,” Hernandez said. “We’d like to tell the community that we’re here to stay.”

In the meantime, community members are mourning the loss of what had been an icon of West Orange since before the
township even existed. According to town historian Joseph Fagan, the church was built in 1827 using brownstone from Shrump’s Quarry in West Orange, which he pointed out is an indication of just how ingrained the structure was in the community. The township’s 1977 nomination form to include the church on the National Register of Historic Places notes that the building displayed designs by the famous architect Richard Upjohn, who is best known for designing the Trinity Church in Manhattan. The form called it “the best example of the gothic revival style in West Orange.”

But the architecture was not the only noteworthy feature of the church. Fagan said the building contained several historical artifacts, including the stained glass windows, a baptismal font and a bronze eagle that dates back to the early 1900s. He said there is even a possibility that the church’s first pastor, Benjamin Holmes, remains buried in the basement.

The fact that an important local institution experienced by all West Orange residents from Civil War veterans up to current residents no longer exists is simply disheartening, the historian said.

“It’s a devastating loss to the town of West Orange,” Fagan told the Chronicle in a Jan. 4 phone interview. “I think in the upcoming weeks and months as town residents process and learn more of what has been lost that it will strike further to the core.”

Mayor Robert Parisi agreed that the church will be “irreplaceable” to the township. And after decades of welcoming community members and visitors alike from I-280 into the downtown district, Parisi said that area of the community will especially feel the loss.

“That corner will never be the same,” Parisi told the Chronicle in a Jan. 3 email.

According to the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church closed in 2004. The building remained empty in the years that followed before its purchase by the International Federation of Chaplains. Preservation New Jersey listed the church on its 1996 list of the 10 most endangered historical sites due to the fact that its congregation had dwindled, and it did not have much funds for maintenance and restoration.

Photos by Yael Katzwer and Joseph Fagan