A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Matawan Presbyterian Church Fire - Christmas 1955

It was Sunday morning New Year's Eve 1955. The congregation of the Matawan Presbyterian Church gathered at the high school for worship that day, an arrangement made only the afternoon before. A rented organ played the introit. The choir wore borrowed robes. The women of the church had hung drapes and arranged desks on the school's stage. And in the center of that makeshift chancel was a table covered in maroon cloth, upon which stood an old brass cross recovered from the communion table during the awful fire that destroyed the First Presbyterian Church's sanctuary on Main Street on Christmas Sunday the week before.

All signs of smoke and ash had been carefully removed from that cross, but the fire was on everyone's minds and in everyone's hearts. Memories of the blaze and the fight to save the edifice were of course fresh and raw. Their thoughts dwelt on an odd mixture of the heroic and the mundane, the corporate and the private, and the spiritual and the worldly. They had borne witness to the heroism and generosity of the firefighters, but also the drilling of holes in the sanctuary floor to drain inches of water from the building. Everyone was grateful that no lives were lost, but most didn't know that a widower had stood vigil the night of the fire over the body of his deceased wife, which had been in the burning building and safely evacuated.

Members had felt the hand of evil in the destruction of their historic church home, but also saw signs of hope in the preservation of the church's records, its pulpit Bible and brass cross, its communion set, and its baptismal font. Many had watched the last symbol of FPC's presence on Main Street -- the old Stanford White steeple -- as it was pulled down from its precarious vigil into the ashen debris below. They were wondering what would be next, so they gathered at the high school for words of encouragement and solace but also of hope in the future.

Reverend Chester Galloway rose to deliver his sermon that morning. In his hand was the pulpit Bible he had used for the scripture lesson on Christmas Sunday. The Bible's cover had been charred and its pages soaked through when it was found, but it survived sheltered on the shelf within the pulpit where Reverend Galloway had left it.  The Reverend stood for a new beginning when he opened his sermon with a bit of tough love, saying, "We can sit down and cry or we can pick up the pieces and start all over again."

Reference: "Presbyterians Pioneer at Matawan," pp. 55 - 60
Thirty-year-old Russell H Apgar, a member of the church since January 1948, had confessed to setting fires on Christmas Eve in the Sunday School building and on Christmas Day in the sanctuary as his "contribution" towards a budding church school expansion campaign. He was assessed to be insane, was moved to a mental hospital in Trenton, and was later convicted of arson and sentenced to 5-7 years in state prison.

Below are selected newspaper articles from the period related to Apgar and the fire:

8 May 1947 - This excerpt from The Matawan Journal providing news from a Borough of Matawan meeting, suggests that Russell Apgar was a fire fighter at the Midway Hose company in Matawan. A review of regional newspapers shows many Apgars were fire fighters.

15 Jan 1948 Matawan Journal

29 Dec 1955 - Matawan Journal

Page one of the 29 Dec 1955 edition of The Matawan Journal, which featured the first news of the fire, was not functioning correctly at the time of this posting. The balance of the edition appears starting on page two.

5 Jan 1956 - Matawan Journal

16 Feb 1956 - Matawan Journal

7 Jun 1956 - Matawan Journal

2 May 1957 - Red Bank Register

22 May 1958 - Matawan Journal


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