Fire-damaged church

This view of Northwood-Appold United Methodist Church from Loch Raven Boulevard shows the toppled steeple at left. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / December 29, 2013)

Some people looking at the Northeast Baltimore church destroyed in a four-alarm fire Friday might see empty windows, blackened bricks, a sawed-off steeple and ceiling open to the sky. The Rev. Cecil Conteen Gray sees a miracle.

"It should have fallen. It should have toppled," Gray said Sunday of the Northwood-Appold United Methodist Church's wooden steeple, which towered over the Cold Spring Lane and Loch Raven Boulevard corner for more than 60 years.

The steeple, which withstood the flames Friday, was eventually taken down Saturday, its metal cross saved for a new building.

"That's a miracle for anybody who might want to know what to call it," Gray told his congregation, which met Sunday for the first time since the fire.

About 100 people attended the services, held across the street at the Northwood-Appold Education Center, where two poinsettias and a small cross made an altar, metal folding chairs constituted pews, and people pulled out personal bibles, some dog-eared paper copies, some iPads, for the readings.

"I needed to be here to see everybody come together after this," said Michele Parker, 27, of Baltimore, who became a member of the Northwood-Appold church seven years ago and printed 12 pages of Facebook condolences and prayers to share Sunday.

"It's overwhelming," she said. "Everybody knows how special this church is to each of us. There's so much support everywhere."

Officials have not said what caused the fire, which started before 4 a.m. Friday and took more than six hours to subdue, drawing about 200 firefighters and 30 fire vehicles to the scene.

"It was heartbreaking," said Catalina Stewart of Baltimore, who has belonged to Northwood-Appold for more than 30 years and drove to see it engulfed in flames early in Friday morning.

"When I drove up to see (the church), I was stunned," said Usher Moses, who served as associate minister from 2002 to 2007, and returned Sunday from his home in Bowie to attend the services with his family. "But we people are resilient. We will rebuild."

Crews removed the steeple and several feet of water from the building Saturday. Ian Brennan, the chief public information officer for the Fire Department, said the steeple posed a serious safety risk and the investigation can move forward more quickly now that it has been removed.

"On our end there was a significant amount of hard work and expertise that went into preventing that from falling and disrupting our operations," he said, pointing to the streams of water directed to the structure while the fire raged. "It lost probably a bit too much to be saved but they preserved it enough so that it didn't fall."

The metal cross, preserved from the wreck, will serve as the physical continuity in a new building, said Gray, who used the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to urge patience on his congregation during the rebuilding. The work of the church, which includes the K-12 Northwood-Appold Community Academy Public Charter school, will continue without interruption.

Services will continue for the short-term at the Northwood-Appold Education Center, and plans call for the new church to be built in the same location of the one now in ruin.

"We will be meeting this week," he said. "When this kind of thing happens we pray and we work. We pray and work."

City politicians and other churches pledged support, offering communion trays and other materials.

"The flames did destroy it but the flames don't have the power to destroy what that building represents," said Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, who oversees about 70 churches as superintendent of the Baltimore metropolitan district of the United Methodist Church. "There isn't any flame on earth or in hell that can destroy what that building represents."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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