† 170 Commercial Street

Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church (1866)

The critical dimension of the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church was the height of its steeple: at 165 feet, it was one foot taller than that of the Methodist church in the center of town, from which this body seceded. The church was built in 1866 on the site of the Wesley Chapel. The centenary in question was the founding of American Methodism in Maryland and Virginia in 1766. In 1908, the congregation’s architectural ambition turned out to be its undoing.

Nancy Paine Smith wrote that “this lofty point, above the stream of the fire engines, was one night struck by lightning. It burned so slowly and so fitfully that many watching it thought it might be a corposant which plays harmlessly about the masts of vessels. There was no sign of fire within the building, and none without, except that lofty point, when suddenly the whole structure burst into flame. Blazing to the sky, the beautiful church and the splendid organ was in an hour a heap of ashes and charred timbers.”

The tragedy had all-too-human dimension, as Irma Ruckstuhl reminded me in 2013: “Two young boys, Joseph B. Oliver Jr., 14, of Court Street, and Joseph Roderick Holmes, 12, of Franklin Street, were both killed on March 30 by falling timbers at the Centenary Church.” ¶ Updated 2013-09-10




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