North Preston faces 'mourning time' after fire hits historic church

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Newly renovated North Preston church reopens this weekend

A fire earlier this week at a historic church in North Preston, N.S., was caused by a faulty air exchange motor, church officials said Friday as they began to tally the steep cost to repair the community's beloved gathering spot.

Rev. Wallace Smith, the pastor of St. Thomas United Baptist Church, stepped into the building Friday for the first time since Wednesday's fire. "It's cold in there. It's like somebody just died. It's a little bit of a mourning time," he said.

It was a difficult, heart-wrenching task for the minister, who was baptized at the church and has led the congregation for 16 years.

"All of my memories are here at this church," he said. "It's more a home away from home, for all of the folks in this community."

Smith said the fire broke out on the second floor, at the back of the building. Fire officials found the cause was a faulty motor that ran the air exchange system in the church. It caused an electrical fault, which started the blaze.

"I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw and smelt all the smoke damage that's in the main sanctuary. There was no burning in the main area, but a lot of smoke damage," he said. 

Parts of floor, ceiling must be rebuilt

Witnesses said there were people in the building at the time, but no one was injured.

The church lost two rooms for Sunday school and meetings, along with a washroom. There is also smoke and water damage in the main sanctuary.

"There's some walls back there, along with the floor, ceilings and stuff that has to be totally moved and rebuilt again," Smith said. "There's a hole — probably 20 by 30 feet — that's basically outside, that you could see right in through the rooms."

The hole has been boarded up and covered with a tarp while the church's insurance company tries to determine the extent of the damage and the cost of repairs. It's unclear when the congregation can return to the site.

Sunday service at community centre

Halifax fire officials estimated the damage at approximately $200,000. Smith said he thought that number was in the right ballpark — and represents a significant bill for the congregation.

"The main thing for the congregation is that the building itself is still standing," he said.

"If you drive by the church, you would never think that we had a fire, only by the yellow tape that's on the door. But when you go around the back you would see the extent of the damage."

Hundreds of members of the St. Thomas United congregation will move to the North Preston Community Centre gym for this Sunday's service at 3 p.m. It will be a healing service — where everyone dresses in white — and it was planned well before the fire. But Smith said it will have even more meaning now. 

"People are pulling together. They're looking forward to Sunday, more so now than the building itself," he said.

"Because they know the building is in good hands and they give thanks to God that we didn't lose the whole structure of the building." 

Smith said this Sunday's service at the community centre is open to all, and he hopes people who don't live in the community will also join in.