Closed since 2016 fire, First Baptist Church in Lebanon could reopen by year’s end

Sally Cole, of Lebanon, N.H. waters black-eyed Susans at the First Baptist Church in Lebanon on Friday, July 8, 2022. Cole was with her husband, Dave Cole (not pictured), cleaning up around the church, weeding and removing debris to prepare it for landscaping later this summer. In 2016 an arsonist destroyed the original Gothic Revival structure built in 1870. Services are currently held off-site. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sally Cole, of Lebanon, N.H. waters black-eyed Susans at the First Baptist Church in Lebanon on Friday, July 8, 2022. Cole was with her husband, Dave Cole (not pictured), cleaning up around the church, weeding and removing debris to prepare it for landscaping later this summer. In 2016 an arsonist destroyed the original Gothic Revival structure built in 1870. Services are currently held off-site. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Alan Ashey, of Canterbury, N.H., crosses a beam at the First Baptist Church of Lebanon while building the steel structure to hold the steeple in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Ashey also worked on the rebuild of the United Methodist Church nearby on School Street after a fire in 1992. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Alan Ashey, of Canterbury, N.H., crosses a beam at the First Baptist Church of Lebanon while building the steel structure to hold the steeple in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Ashey also worked on the rebuild of the United Methodist Church nearby on School Street after a fire in 1992. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

The First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., is engulfed in flames during a fire that broke out late in the evening on Dec. 28, 2016. Multiple departments were called to the three-alarm blaze. (Valley News - Josh Weinreb) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., is engulfed in flames during a fire that broke out late in the evening on Dec. 28, 2016. Multiple departments were called to the three-alarm blaze. (Valley News - Josh Weinreb) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-24-2023 6:06 PM

LEBANON — In hindsight, Stephen Girdwood admits he was a little too optimistic about when the First Baptist Church of Lebanon would reopen.

Worshipers have been displaced since an arsonist set the original 1870 Gothic Revival structure ablaze in late 2016. Currently, members are holding services at the nearby Masonic Lodge in Lebanon.

Last summer, the hope had been that the congregation would be able to gather in the rebuilt church by the end of 2022.

Now, congregants are cautiously hoping that they will be in their new sanctuary on School Street by the end of this year.

“At this point, it looks like that’s possible,” said Girdwood, who serves as the chair of the church’s board of trustees.

The first part of the building to reopen would be the first floor, which includes the sanctuary, lobby, restrooms and offices. Work will then continue on the fellowship hall in the basement and the second-floor classrooms and meeting spaces. The last part of the roughly $3.6 million project will be the steeple.

The rebuild has taken longer than planned. In addition to supply chain and labor delays aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the congregation parted ways with its general contractor around three years ago and formed a building committee to manage the project.

“We realized that we had to reduce costs and see how much of this we could do ourselves,” said the Rev. Rick Pinilla.

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Unwilling to take on debt, the church will schedule work only after the necessary money is in hand.

One of the biggest delays has been with a fire alarm box, Girdwood said, which is tied to a system that transmits notice of an alarm directly to the Lebanon Fire Department. It took about 18 months for the necessary equipment to come through.

First Baptist still has a few tasks left in order to obtain a certificate of occupancy, including finishing touches by plumbers and electricians, in addition to a final inspection of the building’s sprinkler system. But professionals are far from the only ones working on the church: Volunteers have put in hundreds of hours painting, installing doors, laying down flooring and putting up drywall, among other tasks.

“We’ve taken on a bit more than originally planned,” Girdwood said. “We’re sort of at the mercy of people’s schedules and their skill levels at the various types of projects that they can do.”

Among the people picking up new skills is Pinilla, who has learned how to cut stair treads.

Congregants who are more experienced in the building trades have taught others how to cut drywall and install drop ceilings. Others, including congregant Catherine Souza, have been working on interior painting.

“It’s been exciting to see it go from a construction zone to something more finished,” said Souza, who is part of a three-person painting crew on Thursdays. “You feel like you’re adding to the building getting done instead of just waiting.”

Around 15 volunteers work on the church every week, Pinilla said. Some are retired while others make time around their work schedules.

“To be honest, I’m not that surprised,” Pinilla said about worshipers’ willingness to work on the project. “It’s a matter of their sense of obligation to Christ and love for the community in which they live.”

Souza, who joined the First Baptist Church three years ago after moving to Canaan, said it was exciting to see everything come together and to be part of making it happen.

“It’s sort of like working on your home,” she said.

The congregation has continued its community outreach efforts, even though they don’t have a building to call home. Among them has been the Ravenbox Food Pantry, which operates from 10 to 11 a.m. the second and fourth Saturdays of every month outside the Upper Valley Senior Center at 10 Campbell St. in downtown Lebanon.

Church members are eager to return to their own space where they can expand their efforts.

“We want to finish the building so we can go about our real work, which is serving the Lord and serving our community,” Pinilla said. “We consider it a place where we can be of service to our community.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.