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Destroyed in fire, Haddonfield church comes back

The Rev. Mark-Anthony Rassmann plans to preach Sunday about the miracle on Ellis Street, a church that rose from ashes because of a community that cared.

Pastor Mark-Anthony Rassmann in his still-under construction Greater Mount Pisgah Church in Haddonfield. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Pastor Mark-Anthony Rassmann in his still-under construction Greater Mount Pisgah Church in Haddonfield. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

The Rev. Mark-Anthony Rassmann plans to preach Sunday about the miracle on Ellis Street, a church that rose from ashes because of a community that cared.

On a red-hot June morning in 2006, a roofer's torch set historic Mount Pisgah A.M.E. Church in Haddonfield ablaze. Fifty firefighters doused the flames, dumping four feet of water in the sanctuary. The building was a total loss.

"I remember seeing [Assistant Fire Chief] Sam Trotman go in that smoking building and bring out the cross," Mayor Tish Colombi said. "People started saying then, 'We will save this church.' "

Since then, Haddonfield's churches, businesses, civic organizations, and individuals have raised $100,000 toward the $750,000 cost of a new building. Workers this week put finishing touches on a 126-seat sanctuary at Ellis and Potter Streets for a community service at noon Sunday. A Bible, table cross and steeple, all retrieved from the original building, are in place.

"We've been here for over a hundred years, and that's a long time. But up until the fire, we were virtually invisible," Rassmann said.

When he arrived six months before the accident, the congregation was down to four active members, one of whom was 98, he said. Rassmann's family of six more than doubled the population in the pews.

"There were those who felt that the cost and challenge of rebuilding might be beyond them, even with our help," said Bishop Richard Franklin Norris of the First A.M.E. District, which governs 330 churches, including those in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.

But immediately, Colombi pledged community support to the A.M.E. council.

"This is reflective of what Christmas ought to mean to us," Norris said. "This community has been phenomenal."

About $10,000 in donations rolled in right away. Accountant Vincent P. Russo of Haddonfield volunteered a year of free financial services.

Russo, who was raised Catholic, calls himself Mount Pisgah's "Jackie Robinson in reverse." He became its first white member after attending weekly services to collect and deposit the offering.

"I got very close to the people in the congregation," Russo said. "At the beginning, I went for accounting purposes. As I continued to go, I enjoyed the sermons."

Russo oversaw revenue from chicken dinners, mail solicitations, golf tournaments, and street-festival booths. The town's Council of Churches dedicated offerings to Mount Pisgah. Russo organized the largest fund-raiser himself, which netted $28,000 at Tavistock Country Club.

Since the fire, Mount Pisgah has met in the auditorium and classrooms of Grace Episcopal Church on Kings Highway downtown.

"After a while, they didn't feel like guests, they felt like family," said the Rev. Patrick Close, Grace's rector. "It doesn't end just because they move into the new building."

The congregations held joint services, fund-raisers, and even an old-fashioned tent revival on the church lawn.

"It's been a tremendous experience for us at Grace," Close said. "They're African American and we're Anglo. We worship in different traditions, but we're brothers and sisters in faith."

Rassmann, 42, said he had come to think of Close as a mentor who helps him hone his pastoral and administrative skills.

"He's a younger fellow, and I'm an older fellow," Close said. "We're colleagues."

But now, Rassmann said, he is ready to "come home."

"We're tired of borrowing space," he said Monday, as workers laid carpet and grouted bathroom tile in the new church.

Congregation members "must have felt this day would never come," Colombi said. "It's a lesson in faith."

Construction was halted in summer 2008, after the building's shell was up and its steeple was back in place. The church's insurer, which had paid about $340,000, declined to pay more, so the church sued. After a year with no progress on the building, a settlement was reached in August. The parties have agreed not to disclose details.

In March, in a case unrelated to the fire, Rassmann was accused of stealing from a deceased parishioner who had signed property in Camden over to him. The charges were dropped.

"The bad publicity really hurt," Rassmann said. "People would rather believe gossip than the story from the horse's mouth."

Mount Pisgah's attendance fell to about 22 members, but it has recovered to a core of more than 40 people with an average age of around 45.

Money remains tight. The church is $37,000 away from being "debt-free," Rassmann said.

Contractors have worked at a discount and provided building materials at wholesale prices. To stretch Mount Pisgah's budget, Rassmann and neighbor Michael Deptula, 21, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., drove to North Carolina last week and picked up furnishings in a rental truck.

"Locally, we would have paid $15,000" for the chairs, baptismal font and pulpit, Rassmann said. "We got it all for $8,500. They wanted $2,500 to deliver; we did it for $1,000."

Four parishioners donated $750 each for fire doors needed to get the certificate of occupancy this week.

"We're going to make it," said donor and 30-year member Charles Butler, who lives next door.

The sanctuary will seat 126, and the basement fellowship hall, with fully equipped kitchen, will accommodate 200. The building is handicapped-accessible and wired for the Internet. Like many ministers today, Rassmann "incorporates a laptop into my service," he said.

The church plans to start a daily after-school tutoring and a feeding program for 10 children from Camden, Rassmann said.

"The old building wouldn't have had space for that," he said. "It was very meager."

The congregation also voted to change its name to Greater Mount Pisgah Church, an effort to appeal to a wider array of members.

"It's something the local congregation decided to do to enhance their perception of who they are," Bishop Norris said. "It doesn't happen often."

"It's not a black church, but a church for Haddonfield," Russo said.