From the ashes: Remembering the Presbyterian Church inferno

REPORTER FILE PHOTO |  Shelter Island Presbyterian Church was rebuilt in the 1930s after the original 1861 structure was destroyed by fire 80 winters ago this week.

ELEANOR P. LABROZZI PHOTO |
Shelter Island Presbyterian Church was rebuilt in the 1930s after the original 1861 structure was destroyed by fire 80 winters ago this month.

It initially appeared to be a mystery — how an iconic Shelter Island building, holding many chapters of its history  could suddenly be engulfed in flames burning so hot and so fast that nothing was left but rubble.

The mystery surrounding the tragedy that befell the church, built in 1861, was solved quickly: It was the work of a young arsonist.

An unnamed 17-year-old confessed to  officers of the Shelter Island Police Department he was responsible for the blaze that consumed Shelter Island Presbyterian Church on the night of February 6, 1934. But another mystery remains buried with the scorched debris of the church: There are no details of subsequent court action, or the motive, or fate of the young man.

Because he was only 17, his name wasn’t released by authorities at the time. Phyllis Wallace, who maintains the Shelter Island Historical Society’s records, said there were rumors at the time but she could find no information about how his case was handled by the courts. Several accounts of the fire never revealed the youth’s name or more information on his arrest.

But here is no mystery about what happened to the Presbyterian church. The fire was so intense that a witness saw the church’s “large bell … dashed to the ground and shattered into pieces.”

In days following, the sadness of the community was seen on many faces since, then as now, the church was as much community center as place of worship.

“The flames burned with such rapidity that nothing remained of the edifice and its adjoining chapel but blackened embers when dawn arrived,” according to a newspaper account at the time.

If the nighttime fire shocked the Island, the following day found a community subdued in mourning.

“When our Presbyterian Church disappeared in a blaze of light on that fatal night, the flames carried with them more than material matter,” according to a pamphlet that was written by Ralph Duvall, a church member at the time.

“The old building represented the prayers and prose and loving labor of the people of this church for nearly six score years,” Mr. Duvall wrote. “The great tragedy is in the history of Shelter Island and its loss is keenly felt by the people of this community.”

His words were also captured in a paper he wrote and gave to the Shelter Island Historical Society to provide a record of the event. He recalled Shelter Island being “enshrouded in a the gloomy darkness of a cold mid-winter night” with the temperature at 10 below zero, when people were “startled by the dreaded wail of the fire siren.”

Many people thought someone’s house was on fire, but when the sirens continued, they were alerted to the reality of a large blaze somewhere in the Center. Residents began to gather around 8:30 p.m. to watch as firefighters could do little more than watch the building burn.

Because heavy ice had frozen the bays, resulting in ferries being out of service for a week, there was no mutual aid coming from firefighters on the North and South forks.

The fire burned itself out in less than three hours.

Betty Kontje, who was five-years-old, watched the leaping flames from her front porch on Smith Street.

Her mother had gone to the store that was across from the school so her father, who was a firefighter, was unable to go to the scene until her mother returned. When he did go to the church, he saw the difficulty his fellow firefighters were having trying to contain the inferno without help from surrounding departments, she remembered.

By morning’s light, all that was left of the church and adjoining chapel was “a mass of metal and a heap of burning embers,” Mr. Duvall wrote. All that could be saved was a large Bible, a very few pieces of furniture and a few church records that had been “snatched form the fiery flames,” he said.

“I was devastated the next day when I went by the church,” Ms. Kontje said. “It was a horror to see it.”

She had gone to Sunday school there every week as a child, where her mother was one of the teachers. It was a home away from home, she said.

Tom Young remembers crying when he passed the site on his way to school that morning. “I cried because I loved that church,” said Mr. Young, a long-time Island resident who now makes his home in Florida. Six-years-old at the time, he wasn’t present the night the church burned, but told a reporter on the 50th anniversary of the fire in 1984, that the church was “the central part of our lives.”

The Reverend Donald Shaw, who was pastor at the time of the 50th anniversary of the fire, said “rebuilding became a community project with many individuals lending their time, equipment and know-how.”

A history of the events on the church website calls the rebuilding the result of a “determined and intrepid spirit,” recounting that the congregation “erected the present sanctuary and fellowship hall in little more than a year.”

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