Juneau's Historic Church, Meeting and Cultural Center
Destroyed in Fire
by Maggie Ross
It was bitterly cold early in the morning on March 12, 2006 in this small city built on a narrow strip of land between mountains capped by an ice field and the sea. A boat was parked in an alley between the historic Church of the Holy Trinity and the frame house next door. Suddenly the boat burst into flame, quickly involving both house and church, and McPhetres Hall next door to the church.
It was apparently a random act of destruction. A man has been arrested in connection with the fire and is being held in lieu of bail. He is charged with criminal mischief and arson, both in the first degree, both felonies. According to the Juneau Empire, he "allegedly started the blaze...after being enraged for being ejected from a party."
The fire department responded quickly. The neighborhood was evacuated and its residents found shelter in Centennial Hall, the small convention center, where the Red Cross provided beds and food. The power grid for the entire city was shut down. The miracle is that the whole of downtown with its closely packed turn-of-the-century wooden buildings did not go up in flames.
It is difficult to explain to those who have not lived here what a key role Church of the Holy Trinity and McPhetres Hall have played in the life of this small city, which is accessible only by air or water—there is no road to the outside. In a very real sense they have been the social and cultural glue that has held the town and its very fragile population together. The hall was a focal point for everything from AA to feeding the hungry, to welcoming tourists, to 101 different groups to use its space for concerts, scouts, opera, theatre, dance, wedding receptions—both hall and church are now ash. Nothing was recovered. Theatre in the Rough, our resident Shakespeare repertory company lost all its sets and costumes except those being used in a current production of Don Giovanni at the high school put on by Opera to Go, also based at McPhetres. Other groups suffered similar losses.
We Juneauites live on the edge of the abyss. Most of us are refugees to as much as from, but for a significant number of people Alaska is the end of the road. Legislators, the homeless, state workers, housewives and husbands, alcoholics, believers, atheists, singers, artists, writers, a large number of summer tourists, rich and poor— the broadest possible spectrum of people found a home at Trinity and McPhetres.
We are so isolated here that if we are to have a cultural life we must make it ourselves, and McPhetres was the focal point of that life. At the wake the McPhetres' groups held for the hall the Sunday after the fire, the rector jokingly referred to them as the 'second congregation,' and during the call-in show the following evening, 'McPhetres Memories,' on KTOO, our local Public Broadcasting station (with 65% of the listening audience), people phoned in, some of them weeping, from cities across the nation.
The beautiful old church was a National Historic Landmark, and some members of the congregation are the third and fourth generation of their families to attend it. Priceless artwork was lost along with records, vestments, altar vessels, newly installed and locally made Stations of the Cross—everything was incinerated. The rite of Stations of the Cross is now held every Friday outdoors at the charred remains and the heap of of twisted metal—the recently new roof—that is all that is left of the church.
While the nearby Roman Catholic church has given the parish use of its hall on Sundays, we must rebuild and soon, not only for the life of our congregation, but for the life of our city. Because a house and boat were involved, insurance money may be tied up in litigation for years. The three pianos, organ and communion vessels which were lost in the fire alone exceed the value of insurance for contents.
Insurance will cover less than half of the estimated two-and-a-half million dollars it will cost to replace the buildings. The cost of rebuilding is high because every piece of lumber and every nail must be barged in and then trucked to the site. A home builder in Alaska will pay more for shipping her lumber than for the lumber itself. Due to the price of oil our cost of living is comparable to that of New York and London, yet ordinary people are willing to live simply in order to be able to inhabit this visionary landscape. Holy Trinity's congregation is not well--to-do, and the diocese is one of the most financially challenged in ECUSA.
But Alaskans are survivors and more than survivors. Although our total state population is small, around half a million, we produce world class atheletes, scholars, writers and artists. In the last summer Olympics, Alaska had three Olympians on the US team. Juneau's population is only around 30,000 but our high school produced the NBA basketball star Carlos Boozer, and one of our skiiers won a silver medal at the Winter Olympics. Koko Urata, having won Athlete of the Year for the Western region in synchronized swimming is on her way to the Nationals.
Juneau has a symphony, a student symphony, a sinfonia, two opera companies, two repertory companies a student concerto competition and one of the biggest folk festivals in the Western United States (non-commercial). The list of gifted people who live here goes on and on. But dedication and talent tend to focus on doing something for its own sake, rather than producing income, and to rebuild our church and hall we need help.
Photos of the fire and historic photos of the church are at the parish website: www.trinityjuneau.org, and the rector may be contacted at email@example.com. Ongoing updates can be found at http://ravenwilderness.blogspot.com. We need money, yes, but we also need altar linens, vessels, vestments, pew books, reference books, record books, office machines, computers, office supplies—in short, everything that makes a church able to operate. If you can help us rebuild, please send gifts to the Holy Trinity Restoration Fund, 411 Gold Street, Juneau, Alaska, 99801.
Most of all, we need your prayers, and please know that we pray each day for you, and for reconciliation for the man who allegedly caused this grievous harm.