Congregants' hope shines through


Kelley Kittle and her fiance, Anthony Mammarella, were looking forward to getting married in the sanctuary of Baltimore First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ellicott City tomorrow.

But a lightning bolt Thursday night changed those plans in a flash, setting fire to the church's roof and leaving the sanctuary strewn with debris.

Yesterday, Kittle, Mammarella and dozens of other parishioners were cleaning up the remaining portions of the church -- wiping down the soot-stained walls in the foyer and removing furniture to dry off -- and helping set up chairs in the temporary sanctuary in the church's fellowship hall.

The lightning strike and two-alarm fire were a close call for members of the historic congregation, which began in Baltimore in the 19th century and relocated to the Ellicott City location, in the 3200 block of St. Johns Lane, more than 15 years ago.

The county building inspector assessed the stability of the remaining part of the church and deemed it safe for use. The Rev. Ben Boggess, the church's pastor, said neighboring churches have offered facilities to the congregation. The church is scheduled to host its Bible study and regular service today.

Parishioners said that even though the fire caused a lot of damage to the church, it could have been worse.

"We're going to still get married," Kittle said, even though people teased her about the potentially bad sign from the fire. "A lot of people say that, but I don't think it's a bad sign."

At the time of the storm, the church was hosting a graduation ceremony for kindergartners and their parents -- about 25 people -- in a section of the church separate from the sanctuary. All occupants were evacuated safely, but it took more than 60 firefighters to bring the two-alarm blaze under control.

Marvel Boggess, the pastor's wife, said firefighters were at the church until at least 11:30 p.m. putting out flare-ups.

Word of the blaze quickly traveled, and a quarter of the congregation's more than 300 members watched from the parking lot as the fire continued.

"Initially it was very sad and a little down," said Robert Blake, 39, as he described the mood in the crowd. "And then as they saw the blessings in it -- nobody got hurt and everybody got out in time -- we bonded as a church family, and we got elevated at that point."

Yesterday afternoon, the Rev. Ben Boggess walked on the drenched brown carpet in the sanctuary as he peered up at the afternoon sun shining through the gaping hole in the roof.

In the sanctuary, metal, pink roofing insulation and charred wood covered ground that once housed a line of pews and the church grand piano and organ. A large cross, connected to a stone wall, was untouched by the fire.

Marvel Boggess said it was a miracle that the cross wasn't damaged.

Throughout the afternoon, a continual flow of teary-eyed parishioners stopped by the church, giving a hug to the Boggesses and offering their help.

"It's very good that everybody is willing to help out," Marvel Boggess said, as she hugged a parishioner.

Ben Boggess said many have turned out to help. "They are in good courage and this is just a bump in the road -- we'll keep going and rebuild," he said.

The pastor said there has not been an estimate on the damaged sanctuary, which was built in the early 1980s. He said they might have to cancel the next scheduled wedding, in October.

"I was pretty devastated," Kittle said of her reaction Thursday night, when she got a phone call telling her about the blaze. "I wasn't concerned about the wedding, but about the church and my pastor." She said that she and her fiance "have been together for 12 years, and we have basically been married."

Kittle and Mammarella now plan to take their vows in front of the church, beneath a flowering dogwood tree -- and in full view of that gaping hole in the church's charred roof.

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