June 19, 2018
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Winterport church members begin rebuilding plans after devastating fire

By Nok-Noi Ricker, BDN Staff

WINTERPORT, Maine — The foundation of the Calvary Apostolic Church — which burned to the ground last month after a young church member doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire inside — will be used again.

“A family life center, that is what we would use it as,” the Rev. Tom Channell said on Sunday of the existing foundation.

In light of what happened a month ago on the church grounds, future plans now call for a separate sanctuary, he said. A building committee was formed Sunday to help make decisions about rebuilding and even though they are still in the early planning stage, “that’s where we’re kind of leaning towards,” Channell said. “The sanctuary wouldn’t be in that building.”

The church, located just north of Winterport village, was destroyed by Hancock resident Wilber “Wes” Strout III, 20, the son of a former pastor of the church, who took his life and burned the church down.

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 was burned to the ground, and a state medical examiner ruled the young man’s death a suicide.

Strout was a church member who moved to Maine a few months before his death from North Carolina where he lived with his father, the Rev. Wilbur Strout Jr., who served as pastor of Calvary Apostolic Church for 17 years, from 1984 to 2001.

“It is totally unknown, to us, why this happened,” his father said in a May 15 email to the Bangor Daily News. “Given his life, none of this makes sense.”

He is survived by his parents, Deborah Strout and Wilbur Strout II, who is an administrative pastor at Heavenview Church in Winston-Salem, NC, and an older sister, Shanna Renee Strout.

A memorial service for Strout was held May 13 at the Crossroads Apostolic Church in Hancock, with more than 350 people in attendance, his father said.

According to a program handed out at the service, the younger Strout preached his first sermon at Calvary Apostolic Church a few months before his passing, and he was heavily involved in a number of church-related youth programs.

He was an employee of Blueberry Hill Ice Cream Shop in Ellsworth who enjoyed the outdoors, especially hiking mountains and swimming, and “almost every night of his adult life, he would say, call or text ‘good night’ to his mother,” the memorial pamphlet said.

A journal that contained rambling writings by Strout and a Bible were found in his car, parked by the church after the fire, 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 in the days following the blaze.

Rumors continue to circulate within the church community and over the Internet and Facebook about why Strout took his life and destroyed the church.

Channell has asked his congregation to forgive Strout for his actions and said Sunday that his congregation is slowly healing.

“They are doing well,” he said. “But they are anxious to get the the debris removed.”

The last of the remains of the burned church, which was built by volunteers in 1986, should be removed in the next week and initial plans are to start building the family life center as soon as possible, Channell said.

The old church housed the Neighbor’s Cupboard emergency food pantry and was an emergency shelter, and Channell hopes the new facility will be even more of a community gathering point once built.

Church leaders are looking into the possibility of adding a soup kitchen to provide a free meal to those in need, or possibly providing an area for local seniors, Boy and Girl Scouts, and other groups to gather, but “That’s all in the planning stage,” Channell said. “When we do come back, we want to be bigger and better than what we were before.”

Once the center is constructed, the plan is to “use that for services while we’re in the process of building the sanctuary and then move over there,” he said.

The Calvary Apostolic Church is temporarily holding its weekly gatherings at the Winterport Baptist Church, Channell said, added that “there has just been an overwhelming amount of support that has come from” fellow church members, the community and others from across the county. “I want people to know we are very thankful,” he said.

Once the old charred building is gone, the church and its members will truly be able to begin to rebuild, the pastor said.

“It’s a fresh start — there is no doubt about that,” Channell said.

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