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Congregation returns to Holy Trinity church after fire

New building opens doors to worshippers for first time Sunday

Posted: Monday, December 21, 2009

The congregation of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church held services in its own new church for the first time Sunday, three and a half years after an intentionally set blaze burned its beloved historic church to the ground.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

The former building - Juneau's second-oldest church that was listed on the National Historic Register - was ruined in a March 12, 2006, fire that also destroyed a neighboring house and boat.

The congregation of a couple hundred raised $1 million to support the rebuild at Fourth and Gold downtown, all the while holding weekly services in another church's parish hall. Now they say they're glad to be going home.

"A little over three years isn't a long time but it feels like it's been a very long time," Choir Director Lena Simmons said. "... Now that it's finally here it's almost like it's unreal. But that doesn't mean I'm not excited."

Worship services were held at 8:30 and 11 on Sunday morning.

As sun shone through a circular window above the altar onto rich wooden beams under high ceilings, the Rev. George Silides touched on the moment at the beginning of his 11 o'clock sermon.

"Well good for you," he said to applause. "And good for God."

"But there's this lady named Mary we need to pay attention to," he added, quickly moving on to the subject of the day.

The feelings described by Simmons were evident among parish members nearly an hour later as they exchanged handshakes and giddy greetings during the traditional expressions of "Peace."

Silides said that while everyone around him is ready to celebrate, he is still worried about details. The church is far from done - the circular window not framed, the walls without wainscoting and the certificate of occupancy so far only temporary. Rebuilding the church required a tremendous amount of work for congregation members and Silides, whose wife, Hunter, also is reverend.

The church saw a 25 percent drop in Sunday service attendance after the fire.

The fire and the trials of the subsequent rebuild brought the remaining parishioners closer together, Silides said, allowing them now to have better connections as a congregation.

"We don't say the church this and that, we say the church building, the place with the cross on top," he said. "Because the church is the people who occupy the building."

The building was insured but not sufficiently. The congregation raised more than $1 million to help pay for the $5.2 million project.

McPhetres Hall, a community gathering place that supports arts and other groups and events, is also still under construction. It too was destroyed in the fire and the rebuild has enriched the church's relationship with Theatre in the Rough, Silides said.

A joint puppet show production held over the weekend to mark the building's opening demonstrated the new ties, Silides said.

"Experiences that tough the spirit are not only the business of churches but the business of theater as well," he said.

The former church at 325 Gold Street was built in 1892.

Robert Huber, who was 25 years old at the time, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree arson seven months after the blaze and was sentenced in 2007 to eight years in prison with seven suspended. He also was ordered to pay restitution.

Huber was angry after being thrown out of a party that night, according to newspaper reports. He set fire in the early morning hours to a boat parked in a driveway between a house and the church. The fire spread, destroying the boat and both buildings.

Firefighters battled the blaze for more than six hours.

The church has forgiven Huber, Silides said at Huber's sentencing.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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