As his congregation sang a spirited hymn Sunday, the Rev. Cecil Conteen Gray gazed up at the ceiling of his Northeast Baltimore church and mouthed a silent “thank you.”
Then he dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief.
Northwood-Appold United Methodist Church, a 72-year-old fixture at the corner of East Cold Spring Lane and Loch Raven Boulevard, was ravaged almost three years ago by a four-alarm fire.
“The heat, we’re told, was as much as, if not more than, 2,000 degrees,” Gray, the pastor of Northwood-Appold, said from the pulpit. “That’s the heat that was in this place. The roof where you are now collapsed.”
No sign of the fire remained at Northwood-Appold on Sunday. Worshippers returned to new pews and sunlight streaming through the tall windows onto a fresh coat of white paint on the walls. A pair of candles and bouquets of pink roses were placed on either side of a golden cross on the wooden altar.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling delivered the sermon.
“It is my honor and privilege to be here with you this morning on this wonderful, auspicious occasion of coming back into this house of worship, entering back into these courts of praise, coming back into a place where, perhaps, you thought you would never be able to set foot again and worship the Lord our God,” she said.
Kevin Hamilton was one of the 200 Baltimore firefighters dispatched to the burning church on Dec. 27, 2013. Hamilton knew it well. He’d grown up on nearby Northwick Road.
Northwood-Appold, Hamilton said, “has always been here.”
“And it’s still here,” he added.
The congregation thanked Hamilton and fellow firefighters Chon Bunch, Michele Chesterfield and Eric DiLutis before Sunday’s service with a plaque and a standing ovation.
“It’s great to be recognized by the community,” Bunch said afterward.
During the service, members joined hands to form a prayer circle at the front of the church.
Chima Okoro, the church’s finance chair, told the congregation he saw both the fire and the rebuilding as a call to action.
“Where do we go from here?” he asked. “We have to work harder.”
The church was insured, Okoro said, but the total cost of the damage is still being calculated. The cause of the fire has not been determined.
Elizabeth Simango, 54, still remembers the kindness that members of the church showed her when she moved to Northwood from Malawi about 25 years ago. She credits the church for helping raise her two children.
When Simango was in nursing classes and her husband was at work, she said, other church members would pick up the kids. When family members visited, a former pastor would stop in to pray with them. The church introduced the family to the American celebration of Thanksgiving — and even brought them their first holiday turkey.
“This is a family community,” she said. “You can just call anybody. … Sometimes it makes me want to cry.”
Stephanie Hayes, 63, has been a member of Northwood-Appold for more than two decades. She called the church “Home, No. 2.”
Hayes serves as the church’s videographer. A few neighbors smiled and waved as they saw her and the other members walking up the sidewalk and climbing the front steps, Hayes said.
“It’s a joyous day to be back and see the sun shining through the windows again,” she said.
Annette Keene, 63, of Parkville, saw her daughter and granddaughter baptized in the church as babies in her 30 years as a member. Northwood-Appold, she said, “was where I rededicated my life to Christ.”
“It just changed my life,” Keene said. “I’m so grateful this building has been restored. It truly was a homecoming, a new beginning for us.”
The church calls itself “A Light at the Crossroads” for its location at the corner of two city thoroughfares.
“I’m glad the light is on again,” Keene said.