The Fire

Fire! January 25, 1947 and the building and the sky are ablaze. The organ pipes melted into the basement. The Ogden and Lane windows were destroyed and the Davidson window survived but was cracked from top to bottom with heat fractures.

A fire in the church in the middle of the night. Was it caused by lightning? Faulty wiring? A gas leak? It couldn’t be arson; who would want to burn down the church?

But it was arson and the fire starter was the beloved pastor, the Rev. Dr. John Lewis. His fiery sermons may have ignited his congregation but it was rags soaked in kerosene that he used to burn down the church. With good detective work tracing the reverend’s purchases of kerosene from two different gas stations just days before the fire, and the rags to pieces cut from one of his wife’s flannel nightgowns, Rev. Lewis was arrested, convicted of arson, and, because a couple of firefighters were injured as they battled the blaze, he was sent to prison.

Why did he do it? He never said. One theory holds that Rev. Lewis tried to burn down the church to force the congregation to move. In 1946 Rev. Lewis began conversations with Wauwatosa Presbyterian about a possible merger. The idea was for both Calvary and Wauwatosa to sell their buildings and build a new church together in the Washington Heights neighborhood. Maybe the Calvary members were’t warming to the idea. After all, only ten years before, during the depression, they had raised a considerable amount of money to restore the sanctuary windows and add an elevator. We’ll never know why. Rev. Lewis went away and the congregation stayed and rebuilt.