Web posted March 13, 2006

Old church and hall a loss to town


Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

"Our building is gone, but our church still stands," the Rev. George Silides said Sunday.

Holy Trinity, at 325 Gold Street, was the second oldest church building in Juneau and registered as a National Historic Landmark. St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, near Fifth and Gold streets, is the oldest. It was built in 1892.

Construction began on Holy Trinity in May 1896, and the first services were held July 26, 1896. The stained-glass windows and an organ were added in 1902. In 1956, a parish hall was added, which also was lost in Sunday's blaze. The hall was named after the Rev. Samuel McPhetres, church rector from 1948 to 1959, when he died in 1959.

McPhetres Hall was used as a venue for many community gatherings over the years, including Theatre in the Rough, contra dancing and Gold Street Music concerts, which began in 2005.

"Those who never worshipped here also had a bit of their life tied up in the campus," Silides said. "The family of the church was bigger than the Sunday attendance."

How to help: Send donations to: Holy Trinity Church 411 Gold St. Juneau, AK 99801 Watch for updates on donations and services:

Location change:

Weekly Lenten Lunch, 12:05 p.m., Thursdays, Northern Light United Church, 400 W. 11th St.

The destruction of the church and McPhetres has left a number of groups in limbo, including daily Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, weekly Lenten lunches and the church's regular Sunday services.

Elva Bontrager, Gold Street Music coordinator and caretaker of the House of Wickersham, said Holy Trinity and McPhetres Hall were important places in the community.

"There are people in tears today watching who weren't members of the church," she said Sunday.

As firefighters worked Sunday morning to smother the last of the fire, the Cathedral of the Nativity provided St. Ann's Parish Hall for the Holy Trinity congregation to gather for its regular Sunday morning service. St. Ann's overlooks the site where the Episcopal church once stood.

The Holy Trinity service began at 8:30 a.m. under heavy emotions as the remains of the church smoldered only a block away. Almost 70 people attended the service.

"We didn't want to be in a church space with the windows and the altars and stuff because ours was gone only a minute before," Silides said. "And also the window of the Parish Hall looks out on (Holy Trinity) and we were able to look out at it as we prayed. It seemed important. I don't know how long that will feel important, but for a little while it will be."

The congregation held a second service at 3 p.m. in St. Ann's Parish Hall and for the time being it plans to continue regular worship at that location.

About 50 people gathered for the later service, where tears were shed and prayers were said.

Mildred Tandy, 86, who has been attending Holy Trinity Episcopal Church services since 1933, said the destruction of the church is a great loss to the community.

"That building was absolutely beautiful because it was so old and we took such very good care of it," she said. "It was gorgeous inside."

Lorraine Bayer, 85, who was married at the church, said the building was the birthplace of many great memories. She got a call a little after 5:30 a.m. from a fellow parishioner informing her about the fire.

"It kind of shocked me. I got a little dizzy," she said. "We said a little prayer together. We prayed that maybe a good thing will come out of this thing."

Although there is a great sense of loss among parishioners, many are trying to stay positive, Bayer said.

"As a friend of mine said ... 'Those walls have been bathed in prayer,' and you're not going to get that again," vestry member Pamela Finley said. "So it's a loss in that sense. But for every loss there's an opportunity and I hope that we can keep our eye on the opportunity here once we're all through grieving."

Former vestry member Kim Laird said the loss to the church is incalculable.

"We had so many things," she said. "We had a 110 years of accumulations, some of which you just can't assign a value to."

The losses include priceless artwork, a full commercial kitchen, a small room where the vestments are kept, altar linens used for special worship, old wood furnishings, candles, numerous copies of The Book of Common Prayer used in service, a library, three pianos, elaborate crosses, table settings and an office, including two computers.

"We lost all our things that we use to make our church lovely at a time of high celebration," Laird said.

The fire also destroyed valuable property in McPhetres Hall, including the majority of Theatre in the Rough's costumes.

"That was a tremendous loss - costumes just lovingly designed by them and handmade," Laird said.

There has been at least one blessing that has come from the disaster, Laird said. The church had been raising $27,000 since 2000 to restore six paintings by Frances Brooks Davis, one of Juneau's first female European painters. The paintings are being restored in Colorado at the moment. The artist donated the paintings to the church in 1910 and 1916.

"They should be returning at the end of the month," Silides said. "They are, like the church was, of incalculable value. They're priceless so the fact that they weren't there is a little miracle."

Silides said he will meet with the church's bishop and vestry today to decide what to do next. He said they will "divvy up responsibilities" and assign who will contact the insurance company, the fire department and creditors.

"So we have to sort out the business work and we have to sort out the ministry work," Silides said.

The church will have a better idea of what the future holds after its leaders meet today, Silides said.

As firefighters continued to stamp out the smoldering embers at the church site, some parishioners already spoke of rebuilding.

"Rebuilding it, we're going to be aware that there always has been community use and we hope to continue that," Finley said.

The congregation is also in the process of finding temporary locations for the events normally held at the church.

"There are a lot of things that happened at Holy Trinity and McPhetres that are going to have to happen elsewhere for a little while," Finley said. "So to the extent that the community can pick up that slack, that's what the community can do."

Silides said the tragedy of the fire has brought the congregation closer together.

"The people who are the church will show themselves and they'll show their best," he said.

Juneau Empire reporter Korry Keeker contributed to this report.

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This page last updated on December 2, 2006.