Steeple catches fire after lightning strikes historic church in Shelburne County

·3 min read
Steeple catches fire after lightning strikes historic church in Shelburne County
The steeple of St. Matthew's United Church in Clyde River, N.S., burns after being hit by lightning during a storm on the morning of Friday, July 9, 2021. (Submitted by Jana Montogomery - image credit)
The steeple of St. Matthew's United Church in Clyde River, N.S., burns after being hit by lightning during a storm on the morning of Friday, July 9, 2021. (Submitted by Jana Montogomery - image credit)

Lightning struck the steeple of a 146-year-old church in Nova Scotia's Shelburne County, setting it ablaze Friday morning.

Jana Montgomery, who lives next door to St. Matthew's United Church in Clyde River, said she woke to very loud thunder and heavy rain shortly before 9 a.m. AT and jumped out of bed to check on her eight-year-old daughter.

She was struggling to close the window in her daughter's room that faces the church when she saw the lightning strike.

"It was super bright and really loud and it hit the steeple and the window closed," said Montgomery, who stared in shock as the steeple's cross appeared to disintegrate.

"There was a hole where the lightning went in the steeple and a hole where the lightning went out."

Submitted by Jana Montogomery
Submitted by Jana Montogomery

Montgomery called 911 and a friend and neighbour with the local volunteer fire department, and then started texting members of the church.

She worried the fire might spread down the roof of the church and jump over to their nearby barn, so she sent her daughter next door to be safe. Montgomery then removed some of the most valuable items from the barn.

Crews controlled fire quickly

The blaze was pretty big by the time fire crews arrived from Shelburne and Barrington, Montgomery said.

Shelburne fire Chief Darrell Locke said they received the call about the church fire at 8:42 a.m. AT. He confirmed the steeple was hit by lightning and there was heavy fire in the top six metres of the steeple when they arrived.

Submitted by Doug Brannen
Submitted by Doug Brannen

He said the response was excellent and they were able to get the blaze under control quickly, thanks to co-operation between neighbouring fire departments.

"The bell tower is burned off the building, and there was lots of water applied, so there's going to be water damage," Locke said.

By noon, the fire was out and the crews were on their way back to their stations.

'Part of the community'

Samantha Brannen, director of the Barrington Museum Complex, was born and raised in Clyde River and has close personal connections to St. Matthew's.

Submitted by Doug Brannen
Submitted by Doug Brannen

She and her parents were both married in St. Matthew's 23 years apart. Her grandmother was the church organist for several years, and Brannen gave the eulogy for her grandmother's funeral service there almost 10 years ago. She is the third generation to make her grandmother's special date pies for church fundraisers.

Brannen said sometime in the '80s, the one-room schoolhouse near the church caught fire.

"I can remember my mother standing in the doorway crying when she was watching those flames," she said, adding that at the time, she couldn't understand why her mother was crying over a burning building.

But Brannen found herself in tears Friday morning when she saw the images of the steeple in flames on social media.

She said it's not just all the significant life events that took place in the building that make this so "gut-wrenching" to see.

"It's more than that," Brannen said. "It is part of the community itself."

Submitted by Doug Brannen
Submitted by Doug Brannen

Brannen has volunteered to remove any historical or valuable items that might be damaged by the water and moisture in the church until the building can be restored. She has been told there is little damage to the structure beyond the steeple and is optimistic that the church will be salvaged.

"It's a miracle, quite honestly, that this church has been standing since 1875 and we hadn't lost the steeple," Brannen said.

"In the Municipality of Barrington, where I work, I have no steeples because of storms and lightning."

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