Firefighters save historic church after steeple is hit by lightning

The bolt caused damage to the steeple but firefighters, coming from the station just a few hundred yards away, quickly knocked down the fire

By Paul Tennant
The Eagle-Tribune

PELHAM, N.C. — Lightning struck the steeple of the historic First Congregational Church, during a thunderstorm, around 4:30 p.m. Friday.

The bolt caused noticeable damage to the east side of the steeple but firefighters, coming from the station just a few hundred yards away at 36 Village Green, quickly knocked down the fire and kept it from spreading down to the rest of the building.

Building Inspector Roland Soucy checked the premises and determined the church can have its regularly scheduled service at 9:30 a.m. Sunday. The 15 to 20 church members who stood on the opposite side of Main Street after the lightning strike were relieved.

"The steeple took a direct hit," fire Chief James Midgley said. The sound of the strike was so loud that firefighters initially thought the lightning had hit the fire station, he added.

Firefighters attacked the blaze from inside the building and had to get up the stairs and work through narrow space to get at the flames, the chief said.


The Pelham Congregational Church in Pelham Center was stuck by lightning shortly before 5:00pm causing the building to...

Posted by Pelham Police Department (NH) on Friday, August 17, 2018

"We have a key to the church," he noted. The lightning blew out the church's fire alarm panel.

"That will have to be replaced," Midgley said.

Engines 3 and 4 and Tanker 1 from the local department responded, along with Engine 1 and Ladder 1 from Salem. Windham also sent an engine.

All companies cleared the scene by 5:30 p.m., but Midgley stayed behind to inspect the building along with Soucy. The fire chief estimated the damage could be as much as $50,000. Firefighters were able to keep water damage to a minimum, he said.

The impact of the lightning strike moved some large beams in the steeple, he said.

The 3 Main St. church was constructed in the 1840s, according to members. Coincidentally, the First Congregational Church is between pastors.

The Rev. William Ferguson, much beloved by the congregation and the larger community, members said, just left to become pastor of a church in Duxbury, Massachusetts.

The deacons are now getting ready to interview candidates for the position of interim pastor. One of the deacons, Jane Ambargis, who has been a member of the church for about 20 years, explained that when a pastor leaves, the diaconate hires an interim -- who cannot be a candidate for the post of settled pastor.

After the deacons choose an interim pastor, they will begin the search for a settled or permanent pastor, she said. The First Congregational Church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.

Ambargis said the church has about 300 members. The congregation's welcoming spirit is what has kept her in the church for two decades, she said.

"We welcome everybody," she said.

Just down Main Street from First Congregational sits St. Patrick Church, a Catholic parish with a school. A sign out front bears the message, "Farewell Rev. Bill. God be with you."

Despite their differing doctrinal views, the two churches have a close relationship, according to Deb Schneider, who lives in Tyngsborough, Massachusetts, but crosses the state line to attend First Congregational.

They help each other with community meals and sometimes worship together at ecumenical services, she said.

"We'll get through it," she said of First Congregational's challenges of repairing the steeple and finding the right interim pastor.

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