CANADA: Devastating church fire met with strong community response

December 15, 2009

Members of All Saints' Anglican Church in downtown Whitby, Ontario, gathered outside on Dec. 14 to mourn the loss of their 140-year-old church that burned in a fire before dawn.

Also lost in the fire were about 90 Christmas hampers that were ready to be delivered to needy families in the area, but the community is pulling together to help both the congregation and the families.

Police are investigating the possibility of arson. "There was a gas can observed outside the building as they were dousing the fire. It certainly went very fast and very big, so it sort of makes you wonder," said Bishop Linda Nicholls of the Trent-Durham region in the Diocese of Toronto. The church had suffered damage from two recent incidents of vandalism when a sign was torn down and some windows were smashed, but Nicholls says no one knows whether the incidents were connected.

Damage to the church, which was built in 1866, is still being assessed, but the bishop said that the chancel end of the church is completely burned. "The altar is gone. The stained glass windows have melted. The flames went right through the roof, so you can see the bare bones, the ribs of the roof, so anything that was inside the church, the organ pipes, that's gone," she said. The church has a very tall brick spire that can be seen for miles; it may be salvageable if the structure was not damaged, she added. The clock in the lower part of the tower stopped as it was damaged just before 5 a.m.

Nicholls says the parish hall and offices in a connected building have smoke damage but seem like they might be able to be used again.

CityTV and the Salvation Army quickly stepped in to say they would provide whatever was needed to replace the hampers, she said, noting that new hampers were already being put together in the gymnasium of the nearby Henry Street High School.

People in Whitby have quickly come to the aid of the congregation, too. "It's been really quite heartwarming that all of the churches in Whitby have offered space, whether it is meeting space, office space, worship space, the funeral home has offered, the municipal offices have offered space," said Nicholls. "I had an offer come in from Catholic Family Services for assistance for pastoral care, huge offers." She said the wardens and the Rev. Ken Davis, the incumbent of All Saints, were going to see what would work best for them. "For Christmas, we're trying to find a church space," she said.

Member of the Provincial Parliament Christine Elliott was accepting financial donations for the "All Saints' Church Christmas Hampers" and toys and food can be dropped off at the Henry Street High School from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. from Monday to Wednesday.

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