Church marks its rebirth
After 2006 fire, Greater Mount Pisgah inaugurated a new building.
As the weekend's weather went from frightful to delightful yesterday, the new Greater Mount Pisgah Church of Haddonfield came to life in brilliant sunshine.
The 126-seat sanctuary at Ellis and Potter Streets was supposed to be inaugurated a week ago, ahead of Christmas, but near-record snowfall forced a postponement that allowed time for a few finishing touches.
"We believe God gave us the blizzard because we were out of time," said the Rev. Mark-Anthony Rassmann Sr. "He gave us the sunshine because we are in perfect time now."
Resurrected from the ashes of a 2006 fire ignited by a roofer's torch, the century-and-a-quarter-old house of worship formerly known as Mount Pisgah A.M.E. Church represents an outpouring of generosity that goes well beyond its core of elderly, African American members that has been getting smaller every year. At the time of the fire, fewer than 20 congregants attended services regularly. Even now, membership is fewer than 50.
In the affluent South Jersey borough of 11,000 people, where only a fraction of the population is black, benefactors of every race and denomination came forward to raise money for the rebuilding effort, said Haddonfield Mayor Tish Colombi, who sat front and center yesterday.
"We are a town that values our history . . . a community that responds in time of crisis," she said. "There is no way that this church wouldn't be replaced."
A litigated insurance settlement provided most of the money for the $750,000 reconstruction. Chicken dinners, direct-mail solicitations, charity golf tournaments - even an old-fashioned tent revival up on Kings Highway - helped raise more than $100,000. The town's Council of Churches dedicated offerings to Mount Pisgah. Members of the business community stepped up, too, including accountant Vincent Russo, who volunteered a year of free services and organized a Tavistock Country Club fund-raiser that netted $28,000.
Russo, who was raised Catholic in Brooklyn, N.Y., became the church's first white member and likes to be known as Mount Pisgah's "Jackie Robinson in reverse."
Also instrumental in rebuilding and outfitting the church were contractors E.Z. Hall, Randy Cosby, and John Lemon.
Grace Episcopal Church on King's Highway hosted Mount Pisgah's congregation during the reconstruction and provided moral and tangible support, said Grace Episcopal's pastor, the Rev. Patrick Close.
The only salvageable construction element from the charred church was its simple white steeple topped with a cross.
Also recovered by the firefighters who battled the three-alarm blaze were a large Bible and a bronze table cross.
The singed Bible and soot-stained table cross were prominently displayed near the poinsettia-flanked altar yesterday.
"We could have had the cross refinished, but we left it as it was - an imperfect cross for a perfect God," Rassmann said. "It helps us be mindful of our imperfections, too."
His sermon, "The Miracle of the Manger on Ellis Street," drew parallels between "the gifts of love" offered after the birth of Jesus and the community's support and gifts of love for the stricken church. He called Mount Pisgah "God's place of grace, where everyone receives a second chance."
And he spoke of his test of faith last March, after two daughters of a deceased parishioner, who also happened to be Rassmann's godmother, accused him of forging her signature to take control of four Camden properties she had owned.
Rassmann turned himself in and was jailed for a time. About the time that the charges were filed, he signed over the properties to the daughters at their request, he said.
He was released on bail, but he worried that the arrest would harm the effort to rebuild the church. In July, Camden County prosecutors dropped all charges for lack of evidence. "I never would have made it without God," he said, "especially when I got locked up."
He thanked members in attendance yesterday, including Colombi, whom he called "the best mayor this side of heaven," and Russo, for their unwavering support in his darkest hour.
The service included a stirring liturgical dance by Minister Pamela Gordy, choral music by Sisters Brenda and Michelle Hailey, and "an invitation to Christian discipleship" in which Rassmann anointed congregants with oil.
The ribbon cutting for the church will occur Jan. 23, attended by Bishop Richard F. Norris, presiding prelate of the First Episcopal District.