Steeple falls as fire damages Civil War-era Baltimore church

TCA Video Tribune Content Agency

BALTIMORE — A fire at the Urban Bible Fellowship Church Saturday morning caused part of the steeple to fall.

Baltimore City firefighters battled a four-alarm fire Saturday at the Urban Bible Fellowship Church in East Baltimore, a former Roman Catholic parish nearing its bicentennial that has been on the National Register of Historic Places for almost four decades.

Firefighters responded to the scene about 9:30 a.m. Saturday. No injuries were reported, though the church steeple was ablaze and eventually fell.

The church’s pastor, John Williams, said the building was empty at the time.

“I just praise God that no one was hurt, no one was in there,” Williams said. “Normally, we meet on early Saturday mornings for men’s prayer, but due to the coronavirus, we didn’t meet today, so the building was empty. We just move forward and rebuild it, trust God to rebuild it.”

The fire was upgraded to four alarms shortly before 11:30 a.m. Blair Adams, public information officer for the Baltimore City Fire Department, said the department called additional units upon seeing the fire, which was contained to the towering, 256-foot steeple. A perimeter was established, while “dozens” of nearby residents were evacuated as a precaution.

“We’re extremely fortunate that the church was not open at the time and we didn’t have any reported injuries,” Adams said.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore said the building was the former home of St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church, which closed in 1986 and then was sold. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

While the church’s cornerstone was laid in May 1833, according to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Library of Congress records say the structure was built between 1865 and 1867, right after the Civil War. It was designed by George A. Frederick, whose other works include Baltimore City Hall. It featured tall stained glass windows by Josef Mayer and other notable murals and sculpture.

The church primarily served German immigrants and was operated by the Redemptorists, who opened a school at the site. In 1966, the parish merged with another and became known as St. James and St. John’s until its closure two decades later.

The church now neighbors the Institute of Notre Dame, a private all-girls high school operated under the Archdiocese. In a message to parents, faculty and staff, Head of School Christine Szala said the school sustained damage.

“The steeple of the church, which has become an unofficial iconic symbol for IND did partially collapse and IND did sustain some minimal damage,” Szala wrote. “The extent of that damage is still being determined.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out of the community as well as the first responders who are working tirelessly to contain the fire and keep IND’s historic building safe.”

Williams said his congregation has about 30 members, several of whom gathered at the scene on an overcast, wet day in Baltimore. Adams said the fire department is still investigating the cause, though a lightning strike from the storm has not been ruled out as what prompted a fire that took more than four hours to put out. Williams said one of the church’s custodial workers lives nearby and believed a lightning strike caused the fire.

“He said no sooner than there was lightning, then he heard the noise, heard the boom, and he looked out,” Williams said. “The steeple was on fire.”

Williams said he has attended services at the church for more than 20 years and has been its pastor for the past four. He was adamant the United Bible Fellowship would be able to weather this.

“We’re just gonna trust God for it,” Williams said. “If we move on, we’re going to move on. We’re not going to let it depress us. We’re not going to let it stop us. We have faith.

“I don’t doubt God. I just trust that everything will work out. I know it will.”


(Baltimore Sun photographer Barbara Haddock Taylor contributed to this article.)


©2020 The Baltimore Sun

Visit The Baltimore Sun at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.