Fire-proof faith

When arsonist struck Holy Trinity nearly 20 years ago, a lasting bond formed with neighboring church


Holy Trinity Episcopal Church is shown in 1991 after an arsonist left the downtown Gainesville church in near ruins.

File photo
Published: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 11:44 p.m.

Almost 20 years ago, Gainesville's Holy Trinity Episcopal Church was a blackened, charred building. It was one of more than 17 churches razed in fires set by an arsonist convinced churches in Tennessee and Florida were trying to control him.

On Sunday, the rebuilt church, its stained glass windows shining even on the cloudy morning, housed several hundred people who filled the pews. Churchgoers attended a joint service held with neighboring First United Methodist Church.

Attendees from both churches marched together from one building, where the service started, to the other building, where the service was finished.

The event commemorated the bond forged between the two congregations during the period of the 1991 tragedy and marked the celebration of this past week of prayer for Christian unity.

"Good came out of evil," the Rev. Harold Henderson told a crowd of more than 400 people at First United, 419 N.E. First St., where the service began. Henderson, First United's senior pastor, talked to the combined congregation about the fire saying that beauty had come from the ashes of the burned church.

For three and a half years after the January 1991 fire, the Methodist church regularly housed the Episcopalian church's members and allowed them to meet there while construction was under way to repair their church, said the Rev. Louanne Loch of Holy Trinity, 100 N.E. First St.

When Holy Trinity reopened, people walked from one church to the other.

"We're kind of commemorating that this Sunday," as well as celebrating Christian unity, Loch said.

The cross and flame, a symbol for the Methodist church, sits over one doorway at the Episcopal church where many from First United filed into the building during the combined service. The doorway across from it is crowned with a depiction of the Episcopal shield. The presence of both symbols is a sign of the continuing bond between the two churches, which work together on efforts to help the unemployed and homeless, Loch said.

Wayne Castello, senior warden at Holy Trinity, said the fire 19 years ago that ravaged that church's sanctuary, destroyed beautiful, historical treasures, although some such as the altar cross survived.

After the 1991 fire, church members described the church's loss as similar to losing a friend or family member. But Castello, who lived through the fires and remembered the old historic building constructed in the early 1900s, believed the parish came away stronger in spite of that loss. "We overcame a sense of loss that you would have with losing the tradition," Castello said. However, he said, "We basically came out stronger as a parish. We did learn that the church was the people."

The fire at Holy Trinity was one of many investigated by an arson task force that involved more than 200 federal, state and local officials working together.

That same year, fires were set at six other Gainesville churches as well as churches in Lake City, High Springs, Ocala, Winter Haven, St. Augustine and Jacksonville Beach. Ultimately a Tennessee drifter, Patrick Lee Frank, was indicted on all of these arson cases including the Holy Trinity fire. A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, he believed churches were trying to control him and burned the buildings to fight back, according to court records.

In 1993, Frank was later found not guilty by reason of insanity in federal court and placed in a government-run medical center. Lawyers later requested Frank be released or placed in a less-secure facility because his mental health problems were in remission and he was no longer a danger to others. Federal court records from 2007 report there had been an order saying his release under a prescribed regimen of care would not create a substantial danger and that there had been a request for his conditional release to an assisted-living facility in Lake City.

Frank, listed as 59 years old, was released from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in early 2008, the agency's records shows. But further information from the court system about Frank and his status was not available because the records had been sealed. A representative of the U.S. Attorney's Office reported last week that Frank was released on conditions from the Bureau of Prisons but said no more information could be provided due to the court's order to seal the records.

The spree of church fires in North Florida that prompted church members to take up guard to protect the buildings was part of the end of a simpler time for Gainesville, said Spencer Mann with the State Attorney's Office.

In 1991, Mann was working at the Alachua County Sheriff's Office and was one of those who took up rotating shifts guarding the church he attended from whoever had targeted places of worship.

The year before the fires started, the city had gone through the contagious fear spread by the serial killing of five college students. Danny Rolling would later be convicted of the slayings and sentenced to death, carried out in 2006.

"Gainesville was losing its innocence. That's the way I saw it," Mann said.

A second fire struck Holy Trinity in 1992 and this time started in the fellowship hall. Two men in their 20s, Patrick Alan Lee and Paul Joseph Campoamor, were convicted in 1998 for starting the blaze that apparently began as drunken prank.

At Sunday's service there was no evidence of the fear that had taken hold of congregations almost two decades ago, only thankfulness and a sense of cooperation between members of both Holy Trinity and First United.

Another example of that unity is two pottery crosses, made by a member of First United's church council for each church and containing stained glass fragments from Holy Trinity. Dedicated Sunday, they represent "an expression of caring and gratitude for the ongoing relationship between these two congregations," Henderson told the crowd.

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