Monday, July 22, 2019

A Fire Bell in the Night

The burning of Christ Church in 1871

Christ Episcopal Church, photograph by J.D. Heywood, c. 1865

by John B. Green, III

Two photographs in our collection, never before published, provide an opportunity to recount the Pollock Street fire of January 10, 1871 which culminated in the destruction of New Bern's Christ Episcopal Church.  These photographs provide rare before and after images of Christ Church, constructed between 1821 and 1824, and burned to its brick walls in 1871.  The first photograph by J.D. Heywood shows the church as it stood about 1865 during the Union Army occupation of the town.  A Union soldier can be seen standing near the corner of Pollock and Middle streets with the church behind him.  The second photo by an unknown photographer reveals the blackened walls of the church shortly after the fire.

Ruins of Christ Episcopal Church, unknown photographer, c.1871.

The fire began in a stable behind Hahn's Bakery on Pollock Street opposite the church late on the evening of January 10 and quickly spread to adjacent commercial structures.  Although the New Bern fire companies responded to the blaze, they were unable to prevent embers from drifting across to the wood-shingled roof of the church.  Christ Church was soon reduced to its brick walls with only the brick base of its tower remaining. It is said that the church bell rang out one last time as it crashed to the ground amid the flaming timbers.

No New Bern newspapers survive for the first days after the fire. This notice was copied from the Newbern Journal of Commerce by the Charlotte Democrat, 17 January 1871.

Within days the congregation of Christ Church had set about to rebuild.  Church services were transferred to the chapel in the parish's parochial school (the former stable wing of Tryon Palace) and the offer of the use of First Presbyterian Church was gratefully accepted for evening meetings.  Fund raising began in earnest in February with donations and pledges being solicited and concerts and excursions being planned.

Of all the fund-raising activities, those conducted by the Juvenile Sewing Society of Christ Church, were the most endearing.  A group of girls, aged five to thirteen, was organized by a lady of the church with the goal of teaching them sewing and helping them to raise money from the sale of the items they produced.  They quickly were able to raise $100 for the rebuilding and eventually were able to provide enough money to purchase and install one of the principal windows of the rebuilt sanctuary.  Still in place today above the altar is the large stained-glass window with a scene of Christ blessing the little children.

Cover, Esclairmond Claremont, Answer to an Appeal, for the Benefit of the Church, lovingly inscribed to a Former Pastor, 1871
The burning of the church and the activities of the Juvenile Sewing Society are documented in a small volume published by an adult member of the congregation under the pen name "Esclairmond Claremont."  The twenty-seven page publication, Answer to an Appeal, for the Benefit of the Church, Lovingly Inscribed to a Former Pastor, was copyrighted in 1871 in the name of "The Juvenile Sewing Society of Christ's Church, Newbern, N.C.," and was sold to raise money for the reconstruction.

Christ Episcopal Church, as reconstructed, photographer unknown, c. 1900.

Although the rebuilding of the church moved slowly, by April 1873 the church was able to host a visit from the bishop as well as the Easter services.  The building would be occupied on a regular basis by the fall of that year.  Additional work on the church would continue for the next twelve years with the porch being completed in 1884 and the spire in 1885 before the last vestige of the fire of 1871 had been erased.