March 26, 2019

Evening fire destroys century-old church at Calais

CALAIS — A fire Friday evening destroyed the 119-year-old First Congregational Church of Calais on the corner of Calais Avenue and Park Street.

According to early reports, the fire was detected at about 6:30 p.m., and by the time firefighters arrived, the interior of the church was engulfed in flames. Firefighters from Robbinston, Red Beach, Baileyville, Indian Township, Pleasant Point, Baring and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, assisted the efforts of the Calais Fire Department to get the fire under control.

As of 9 p.m., much of the church building had collapsed. According to witnesses, at one point the church’s elaborate steeple fell to the ground and narrowly missed a hose crew fighting the fire.

The historic church, the second Congregational Church built in Calais, was erected in 1873 after the congregation outgrew its original building. The loss of the church included the loss of one of the largest Steven’s tracker organs in the state.

“That’s the worst part — that can’t be replaced,” said Frank Fenderson, chairman of the church’s board of trustees, on Friday night.

“Everybody’s sick,” he said, referring to the church membership, which numbers about 80 active parishioners. “They realize we have to sit down and figure out what next to do.”

Fenderson said that the church members had begun renovations on the structure about two years ago, and had spent about $15,000 to $16,000 on work to the foundation. Plans for the church’s renovations had been developed by the Bangor architectural firm, WBRC Architects.

The chairman said that to his knowledge the building was empty on Friday, and no one was using it. Someone was expected to be there on Saturday to heat up the church for Sunday services, he said.

The church had been the site back in the late 1970s of a national organ convention. It also was visited in August 1991 by members of the Bangor Historical Society as part of a historic tour to the Calais area.

Bangor architectural historian Deborah Thompson, who organized the tour, said Friday night that the church was “irreplaceable” and a significant loss to Maine.

“It was one of the finest, most urbane, and largest Italianate churches in the state,” said Thompson. She said the structure was built at a time when Calais was the second largest lumber port in Maine.

“It reflected a much more vibrant and active city,” said the historian.

The distinctive church was designed by Boston architect John Stevens. The structure was recognized in 1978 as a historical site by the Maine Historic Preservation Committee.

The church’s organ, which was known nationally among organ aficionados, was built and installed in 1873 by George Stevens and his brother, William, who were well-known organ builders in Cambridge, Mass. The brothers built about 800 organs. The Calais organ originally cost $1,800, and the money to pay for it was raised primarily by the women of the church.

The Steven’s tracker organ was a focal point for the church, and its elaborate pipes dominated the rear of the church sanctuary. In a tracker organ, the pipe valves are connected to the keys through a series of mechanical linkages.

The church, with its slate roof and 165-foot steeple, was built to its large size to accommodate the organ. The church was completed at a cost of $39,000 and was dedicated in 1873. The sanctuary seated about 500 people and frequently was used for cultural events.

The church and its members were an integral part of the Calais community for years. The parishioners hired the first Congregational minister to preach in Calais in 1806, and in 1825, the congregation was formally organized.

A meeting house was constructed in 1826 on Calais Avenue on land donated by two deacons. Pews were sold off to “leading families” to raise money for the structure.

A fire in the vestry and repairs to the meeting house resulted in the decision to build the new structure in 1873.

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