WINTERPORT, Maine — Why a young church member doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire inside the Calvary Apostolic Church on Thursday may never be known, but the rumor mill is churning, the Rev. Tom Channell told parishioners during Sunday worship services.
Gossip about why Hancock resident Wilbur “Wes” Strout, 20, the son of a former pastor of the church, took his life and burned the church down are circulating all over the Internet and Facebook, he told them.
The church leader said it was time to lead the world and asked the congregation to pardon Strout for his actions.
“It is the time for us to forgive and move forward … and tell the world,” Channell said while standing at the pulpit of the Winterport Baptist Church where the Calvary Apostolic Church is meeting temporarily.
Strout broke into the church on Route 1A sometime on May 5 through a rear window and spread a flammable liquid throughout the worship area and in front of the altar, according to investigating officials. He then doused himself and started the fire, which was noticed by a passer-by around 10 a.m.
While the church was burning, Strout jumped out a second-story window, and his charred body was discovered by responding firefighters. The United Pentecostal church, which was built by volunteers in 1986, burned to the ground.
The state medical examiner’s office ruled Strout’s death a suicide.
A journal that contained rambling writings by Strout and a Bible were found nearby in his car, but “investigators found nothing in his writings to explain why he set fire to the building,” Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said last week.
Strout moved to Maine a few months ago from North Carolina where he lived with his father, the Rev. Wilbur Strout, who served as pastor of Calvary Apostolic Church in the late 1990s.
“This is not the end, this is the beginning,” Channell told his congregation.
“I want us all to unite together in prayer today for the Strout family,” he said. They need to know “they are loved” and “they hold a very special place in our hearts,” he said.
Channell said he has spoken to both of Strout’s parents, calling them brother and sister, and said, “They need the touch of the Lord today.”
Several of the 120 people who packed the Baptist church started to cry when the Strout name was mentioned. Later in the worship service, the parishioners broke into groups and openly grieved for him and the loss of their church.
While Strout was new to the area, he had friends who are saddened by what happened, including church member Andrew Doyon.
“I knew Wes quite well,” Doyon said just before the service started Sunday afternoon. “He’s been to my house and played with my children.”
Doyon was at his mother’s home when a relative drove by the burning church and called him.
“I felt like I got punched in the stomach,” he said. “It’s like watching a home burn up. I’ve called that my home for the last 13 years.”
The fast-moving fire consumed the building quickly and there was little firefighters could do. While they fought the blaze, the pastor and his son, John Channell, who played piano and sang during Sunday’s service, arrived and knew immediately that the church congregation would be homeless for a while.
“We will be rebuilding and expect to do it on the land we have,” the pastor said.
Once the worship service got under way, one message was repeated over and over by Channell and that was that God has a plan.
“We know this is a difficult time but we have a God who specializes in difficult times,” he said. “He’s a problem solver.”
Channell ended the service by urging his church members to reach out to those who did not attend Sunday’s service, who are hurting and might feel responsible, and to invite them to the next gathering.
“Now more than ever we need to let this world know what being a disciple is all about,” he said.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of the man who died in the fire. It is Wilbur Strout, not Wilber Strout.