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St. John's Church Commemorates 20th Anniversary of Major Fire

Events will be held this Sunday as the West Hartford community, including the firefighters who fought the blaze, mark the anniversary of the fire.

On Oct. 10, 1992, a fire devasted much of the then-85-year-old historical St. John's Episcopal Church building on Farmington Ave. in West Hartford. The community and parishoners will join together this Sunday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of that event.

An article from the archives of The Hartford Courant, published the day after the fire, provides details of the enormous blaze which tore through the roof of the building.

"It was the largest assembly fire loss that year in the nation," said West Hartford Fire Department Battalion Chief Matt Stuart. He said the damage caused by the fire was approximately $5 million.

Walter Blair, who responded to the fire as part of Engine Co. #1, will speak at Sunday's commemoration. Other retired and active firefighters have also been invited to attend. One of the West Hartford Fire Department's pieces of apparatus will be parked at the church at 11:30 a.m. as well.

No one was injured in the blaze, which occurred late on a Saturday night. The property damage was significant, however. "It's very fortunate that the whole place didn't burn down," Stuart said.

Newfield Construction Company of Hartford, which worked on the reconstrution project, was able to rebuild the stained glass altar window based on photographs and recovered glass shards, and they were also able to replicate other parts of the damaged building according to the company's website. The reconstruction also ensured that the church met fire, building and handicapped-accessibility codes.

The following information regarding the schedule for the commemoration has been provided by St. John's Episcopal Church:

  • October 21, 10:30 a.m. service followed by a parish picnic with historical displays of photos and sharing of remembrances.
  • October 21, 5:00 p.m. Choral Evensong and Organ Recital combining 70 voices of the Choirs of St. John's Church and Trinity Church, Hartford

Tea (which will be served from 4 to 5 p.m.), Evensong and Recital will be presented by Sacred Music at the Red Door. Evensong to include festival Anthem "Sanctuary Doves" by Music Director Peter Stoltzfus Berton. Text combines Psalms, a poem commemorating the rebuilding of another church after a fire, and participation by the congregation singing "For all the Saints."

Evensong is followed by 30 minute organ and flute recital with video projection of the organ console and will be performed by DUO MYDO: Douglas Bruce, organist (from Germany) and Myriam Hidber Dickinson, flute (from Switzerland)

 

The following "Story of the Devastation" has been provided by Bill Uricchio:

October marks the 20th anniversary of a devastating fire which nearly destroyed our building. It can be said, however, that God’s mercy was upon our parish – there were no injuries to the many firefighters, clergy, staff, parishioners and others who were soon on the scene.

Gary E. Wait provides this account in his fine 1996 history of the church: “Late in the evening of 10 October 1992, the sexton and his family were awakened by the sound of breaking glass in the church next door. A passing neighbor, having noticed a cloud of smoke in the area of the church auditorium, had summoned the West Hartford Fire Department. The first fire trucks arrived about 10:30 p.m., and the noise of breaking glass had been the sound of firefighters breaking into the blazing building… a conflagration ensued that would destroy the entire auditorium and very seriously damaged the chancel of the church, as well as fill the entire building with ashes and water and smoke.

"Arriving at the church soon after the first firefighters, Mr. Pace and a few parishioners watched helplessly as smoke at first, and then finally large tongues of flame burst out over the auditorium area. ‘We watched in horror,’ the rector recalled, ’...as the fire travelled through the building on the old roof beams. The fire broke into the nave at the west transept.’ Organ pipes melted, together with the leading of the windows in the chancel; eventually borne down by the weight of the roofing slates that hissed and steamed in the battle between water and fire, the roof of the chancel collapsed about the altar. Not until toward 4 a.m. were the combined efforts of all the West Hartford fire companies, aided by many from Hartford, able to bring the blaze under control.

"The next morning, services were held in front of the still smoldering near-ruin. Mr. Pace reminded the assembly, ‘We are the church. The church is not a building. The church is people’…The work of recovery began immediately.”

Many hands, and hearts, joined to rebuild the edifice and it, and the parish, emerged stronger and better prepared for the future."

Battalion Chief Stuart provided these names of West Hartford firefighters who were on duty and responded the night of the fire:

E1: Walter Blair, Ray Grosse, Jack Noonan, Bob Taylor

E2: John Piacenti, John Aniolowski, Sean Shoemaker, Dave Ratz

L-2: Larry Cox, Ned Partridge

E-3: Al Normand, Ned Farley, Matt McCarthy, Linda Akerman

L-1: Mike Noga, Chris Perrault

E4: Ken Roback, Jim Clarkin, John Griffin, Lee Chapman

E5: Chris Conlon, Dave Valintakonis, Frank Donahue, Ronny Flay

Deputy Chief Dennis Wennerberg

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