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Saving Union Chapel from above

COURTESY PHOTO Christopher Gillette, a crew member with Associated Lightning Rod Co,, at work on Union Chapel late last week.

Since time immemorial, humans have known that lightning is one of nature’s more sporadic yet deadly threats.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the last 20 years, the United States averaged 51 annual lightning strike fatalities.

The most recent statistics by the National and Fire Protection Association depict surprising regularity of lightning related damage and injuries. Between 2007 and 2011, local fire departments around the country responded to an estimated average of 22,600 fires per year that were sparked by lightning.

These fires caused nine deaths, 52 injuries and $451 million in direct property damage.

So, it’s not surprising that one of Shelter Island’s historic treasures, the Union Chapel, has recently installed new lightning protection for this summer’s coming storm season.

Built in 1875, the Chapel is one of the oldest buildings on Shelter Island that is still in use. Constructed by a devout Methodist and builder by the name of John French, or “Honest John,” he was known for “mixing mortar with a conscience.”

Chapel Treasurer Dave Ruby said Monday that the church trustees “recognize the importance of preserving and maintaining this building and its historical significance and the beautiful Walter Brigham mosaic windows, which are unique.”

As any homeowner or firefighter would tell you, proud and noble words such as “oldest” and “historic” are also usually synonymous with more blunt and threatening words such as “fire hazard.”

As two men from his company were climbing around the roof and installing new wiring in the church attic, Rob Cooper, president of Millerton, New York’s Associated Lightning Rod Co., explained that “lightning is a leading cause of church fires.”

Fortunately, according to Mr. Ruby, “The new system meets modern standards and replaces older, weathered materials. Twelve lightning rods, also called ‘air terminals,’ are now located at the roof peaks and tower. More earth grounding points and bonds to the water and electric system were added.”

The new installations also take note of the church’s historic aesthetic.

One of the Associated Lightning Rod crew members, Eric Farnham, said, “You don’t see all the wire running across the roof. It’s almost all inside.”

The new system is an upgrade from the 1950s-era system that had previously served the building.

Mr. Ruby also mentioned that the investment in the new protection was made possible by the community’s response to the Chapel’s fall appeal.

“We spent almost all the money we received on this critical project,” he said.

Union Chapel summer services begin this weekend at 10:30 a.m. and continue for the next 13 weeks, with a different guest preacher each week.

This historic Shelter Island jewel seems, for the foreseeable future, safe from the irregular fury of  lightning.