September 1, 2004
Summer lightning that seared a hole in the roof of a Scottsdale church has cauterized wounds in its congregation inflicted by the ascension of the Episcopal Church's first gay bishop.
On July 14, the bolt ricocheted through the rafters and scorched the wooden frame of St. Anthony on the Desert Episcopal Church on Shea Boulevard.
As the church's congregation gathered in the days after the fire, members began to realize the issue dividing them, homosexuality, had distracted them from their faith and Episcopalian community. Now, with work on the sanctuary reconstruction months ahead of schedule, there has been reconciliation as well, church leaders said. "When you get hit by lightning, get a fire, that's when you realize you've got a family," said Jonathan Coffey, senior pastor at St. Anthony.
A battle among the nation's Episcopalians began last year when V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire was elected as the denomination's first gay bishop. The vote has prompted several congregations to withdraw from the national church, arguing the Bible forbids homosexuality. Numerous other congregations have threatened to leave the church.
Tensions over homosexuality affected even St. Anthony, which did not take a stand on gays in the church. A few families have left the congregation because the church would not take a position against homosexuals. Others left because it would not take its inclusive tradition a step further and publicly support Robinson's ascension, Coffey said.
While the northeast Scottsdale church has worked to remain open to all, the pastor said members had begun to question what defines Episcopalians. An answer came in the 800-member congregation's response to the fire and the support it received from the state Episcopalian Church. They focused on rebuilding and their faith.
"Worshiping God, that's what we're here for," said Rob Nehrbas, senior warden at St. Anthony. "You can talk about all the other things you want to, but they don't matter."
On July 14, a Mayo Clinic employee was headed to work about 1:30 a.m., saw flames coming from the church's roof and called 911. Firefighters from Rural/Metro responded quickly, Coffey said, and their efforts limited damage to the church's wooden frame.
Pro Contractors was hired and began work on the roof by July 16, led by Sam McCrary, the general contractor. Initially, church leaders feared repairs would take the rest of the year to complete, Coffey said. "Even privately we were saying it could be even (until) Christmas."
When McCrary called his regular subcontractors to see who could work on the church, nearly all were available.
The pews had been returned by Tuesday morning and construction workers were putting Venetian plaster around the altar.
Damage had made the sanctuary, where weekend services normally were held, unsafe, forcing the congregation to worship in the smaller parishioner hall.
On Sept. 11, the first service at St. Anthony, 12290 E. Shea Blvd., since the fire will be held in the restored sanctuary. The next day, a 10 a.m. service will be held to welcome back the entire congregation.