Death and illness in Maine congregation due to arsenic poisoning

May 1, 2003

W. Reid Morrill, a 78-year-old member of Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden, Maine, died April 28. Maine health officials have identified arsenic poisoning as the probable cause of his death and of illnesses experienced by a dozen other members of the congregation. Gustaf Adolph is a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Members of the congregation in northeast Maine became sick Sunday afternoon, April 27, several hours after drinking coffee and eating sandwiches and sweets at the church. The suspected cause of the illness is arsenic poisoning, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director, Maine Bureau of Health.

Investigations are being conducted into how the parishioners ingested the arsenic, Mills said. An autopsy was conducted April 29, with the cause of death reported as pending but investigators are considering the possibility of criminal intent.

Morrill was one of several Gustaf Adolph members taken to Cary Medical Center, Caribou, Maine. Others were hospitalized at the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine. Seven were treated without being hospitalized.

The Rev. James P. Morgan, an Episcopal priest and pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Stockholm, Maine, has been serving Gustaf Adolph on a part-time basis while the congregation works with the ELCA New England Synod to find its own pastor. The Rev. Elaine C. Hewes, Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bangor, is assisting Morgan in counseling family members and friends of the congregation.

The Rev. Hans R. Arnesen, associate to the bishop of the ELCA New England Synod, Worcester, Massachusetts, and Morgan conducted the Morrill funeral service April 30 at the Lancaster Morgan Funeral Home in Caribou.

The Rev. David R. Cote, Covenant Lutheran Church, Gardner, Massachusetts, who has been trained in crisis counseling, is assisting the New England Synod to construct a plan for immediate crisis management. The plan also provides for ongoing care and support for the members of the New Sweden congregation and the community as they deal with the stress surrounding this situation, both now and in the weeks and months to come, said Payne.

Members of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Maine are assisting the ELCA congregation. 'Our partnership with the Episcopal Church is very strong in that place in particular,' said Payne. 'Bishop Chilton Knudsen and the whole Episcopal Diocese of Maine have been very supportive at the difficult time,' she added.