Parishioners of Trinity Episcopal Church in Southport are probably grateful there are only three elements mentioned in the Bible. Since the congregation's founding in 1725, all three elements have damaged successive houses of worship.
"We have been visited by the three biblical elements -- fire, wind and water," said John Morgan, senior warden of the church.
In 1779, during the Revolutionary War, British general William Tryon torched Trinity's second home in Fairfield Village. Its iconic third home, a Carpenter-Gothic structure that was built 150 years ago at the corner of Pequot Road and Center Street, was destroyed by a tornado in 1862 when the steeple toppled onto the sanctuary.
And last week, Hurricane Sandy inundated the building's educational wing with more than 4 feet of tidal waters. The structure houses Trinity's offices, library and nursery school, and the damage has dislodged computers, toys and books; destroyed murals and displaced the church's ministry programs, including 12-step meetings, Sunday school, book group, Bible studies, music for children, young women's fellowship and sea scouts.
Until further notice, except for worship in the sanctuary, all meetings, programs and activities in the building are suspended or relocated, church leaders said Monday.
Even the worship services may also be interrupted, said Rev. Nicholas T. Porter, the Trinity Church rector. Noticing a crack on a column during a walk-through Monday, a week after the storm, Porter decided that a structural engineer should be called in to examine the spire.
"In an odd way, it's history repeating itself 150 years later," Porter said. He discovered the flooding, the first in the church's history, last Tuesday when he went to the daily chapel to conduct the typical morning service.
"It smelled like the Boston Aquarium, and I knew water had gotten through. It was everywhere. Things in every classroom were bobbing along in three feet of water," Porter said. At its height, the water had reached almost five feet, leaving a high-water mark on the walls. The courtyard had become a swimming pool, and the four boilers were completely submerged and will have to be replaced.
"It's catastrophic storm damage," said Porter, who found a fish in pooled water.
"It was an incredible volume of water," Morgan said. He said it took the clean-up crew seven hours just to pump out the building, and another five hours to pump out the boiler room and sub-basement.
"Our nursery school totally washed away. We're looking for a home for it," Morgan said.
Remediation efforts alone will cost $168,000, according to Morgan, who can't begin to estimate the cost of reconstruction, which will entail "taking the building down to the studs and concrete and starting over," he said.
Bookkeeper Melanie Andrews said her computer was found floating and phone lines were damaged. "We're working the cellphones hard," she said. The entire contents of the nursery school -- furniture, toys, books, were lost, she said. Several teachers were able to save the school's resident menagerie of a chipmunk, turtle and a tank with three goldfish.
Staffers are working to re-create all the files on each of the school's 115 children. "It'll be a mammoth project," Andrews said.
Porter said he and the congregation are not daunted or discouraged by this latest setback, which occurred on the eve of the church's sesquicentennial celebration, scheduled to begin in early December. He said a reading in church Sunday was a resonant passage from John's gospel, chapter 11 -- the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
"This parish has withstood tests by fire, wind and water, and each time we have persevered," said Porter, who was one of the first graduates of Trinity Parish Nursery School in 1969.
"We always prevail. While our building is made of wood and concrete on the outside, it's made up of faith in God on the inside. We're not going to give up. We're committed to our service and ministry to the people of Fairfield and Southport and we're committed to serving our God," Porter said.
In fact, the congregation will use the storm damage as an opportunity to improve on its building in the reconstruction and to improve on its programming.
"God is not in the fire or the wind or the storm. When it's quiet, that's where God is present," said Porter.
"We're hoping to expand (the school) back to the full elementary school it once was," Morgan said.
"Back to the future," said Porter.
In the 19th century, Trinity operated a day school on its grounds, and the current plan calls for a coed kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school that would be located within the existing church complex, likely beginning in the fall of 2014. The private, five-day Trinity Day School would offer a challenging foundational education (reading, writing, math, science and religion) geared toward high academic achievement and an emphasis on teaching values and service to others.
"As we assess the damage to the building and care for the pastoral needs of our parishioners and neighbors at this distressing time, we also vow to rebuild and grow so that we can better meet the many ministries that God is calling us to serve," Porter said.
"Looking past our current circumstances, I am personally invigorated by the promise of what together we can do to strengthen Trinity," the rector said. "Working together, we will not only honor 150 years in this blessed building, but we will also commit ourselves to staking out a stronger, more secure future worthy of the faith and commitment of our forebears."