Suit announced at steeple-lighting


Gazette Photo by John Swan
Rev. Ashlee Wiest-Larid, pastor of the First Baptist Church, gives the signal and the steeple is lit up during a trail lighting Sept. 21. Wiest-Larid said the lighting is symbolic of the resurrection of her church, ravaged by a fire Jan 18, 2005 and the commitment of her growing congregation to rebuild.

The 150-foot steeple glowed during a recent trial lighting for the first time since a fire ravaged the First Baptist Church of JP at the corner of Centre and Myrtle streets on Jan. 18, 2005.

Pastor Ashlee Wiest-Laird and members of her congregation said the Sept. 21 lighting event symbolized their determination to restore the 147-year-old church. Wiest-Laird also announced the church and its insurance company are litigating against “third parties” whom they allege bear “fault for the fire.”

A suit filed in Superior Court by the church and Cambridge Mutual Fire Insurance Company accuses Hughes Oil Company and Home Comfort Control “improperly installed the furnace” in February, 2004 that “started a fire at the Church.” The suit asserts the defendants “engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices… failing to follow the standard of care in the trade.”

“The [private] fire investigator told me the furnace was installed improperly, was full of soot and not vented properly,” Wiest-Laird said during a phone interview.

“We discussed [the suit] as a congregation and went through a lot of angst,” she went on to say. “Believe me, we have no bad feelings toward Hughes or Comfort Control. In fact, Hughes is still maintaining the furnace in the [church pastor’s] house. We’re just asking people to be accountable.”

The Boston Fire Department’s incident report did not include any cause for the fire, although spokesperson Scott Salman did say he believes it was not arson.

In a cross claim both defendants deny culpability and request a jury trial. In telephone interviews representatives of the defendants claimed their clients were not at fault.

Diane Horan, a co-owner of Hughes, said, “We do absolutely deny any fault. This has been a family-owned business since 1934, and we’ve never had this kind of suit before.”

Francis McGurrin, attorney for Hughes, said, “Right now is just the allegation stage… and the church has the burden of proof, which to date, it has not shown.” He added, “Our initial investigation shows no fault on the part of Hughes.”

McGurrin noted the church has received “a lot of publicity” since the fire, and he emphasized, “Hughes Oil Company is a reputable business serving the church for over 40 years.”

“We disagree with the facts alleged in the lawsuit and plan to prove that in court,” said Richard Sawin, attorney for Home Comfort Control. “We’re very sorry to see such a beautiful church in that condition, but it has nothing to do with my client,” added Sawin, a JP resident.

Michael Flammia, attorney for the church and its insurance company, said in a telephone interview that evidence shows, “The fire originated in the room with the furnace.” He called the Civil War era church “irreplaceable,” asserting, “It should and must be repaired.”

Wiest-Laird estimated it would cost $11 to $12 million to restore the historic structure to its original condition. “There’s no way we could do that,” she admitted. Instead, the church plans a more modest two-phase reconstruction costing about $6.5 million. The policy with Cambridge Mutual has paid out only $2.7 million.

“We’re not relying on the lawsuit to cover our costs,” said Wiest-Laird. “We’re just trying to move on the best we can and realize its our responsibility to clean up the site.

“We can’t request bids until the lawyers say it’s okay because they need access to the building. But I think we’re at a place now to go ahead with our capital campaign to raise money. It’s scary, but that’s what we need to do.”

Permanent lighting for the steeple will be installed on street poles next to the post office sometime this fall. Funding for the lighting comes from a parishioner who matched a $6,000 grant from Historic Boston, Inc. to stabilize the steeple. The City of Boston’s Public Works Department is also providing some technical assistance.

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