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'Traumatic' fire ravages historic Alexandria chapel

By Christy Goodman and Martin Weil
Saturday, October 23, 2010; B3

Fire caused heavy damage Friday to a historic chapel on the grounds of the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

The blaze, which raged through the 19th-century Immanuel Chapel, was described by the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of the Episcopal seminary, as a catastrophe.

The blaze was reported about 3:55 p.m., and "the moment the fire took hold, it went down rapidly," Markham said of large sections of the 129-year-old building. No injuries or damage to other buildings was reported at the facility, on the western side of the city, at Seminary Road and Quaker Lane. The cause was not yet known.

"I watched it," Markham said. "Within 40 minutes, the heart of the chapel was destroyed. It was a trauma that will stay with me."

Many members of the Episcopal clergy were ordained in the chapel. It had also been the site of marriages and funerals.

According to Markham, former President Gerald R. Ford, once a Virginia resident, had attended services at the chapel, including the Sunday after taking the oath of office.

In addition, he said, the worship space was used three times daily, with students required to attend at least one of the services.

Such a space, he said, "really forms you."

Above the arched stained-glass window behind the altar were the words: "Go Ye Into All The World And Preach The Gospel."

The window and the words of exhortation were lost to the fire, the seminary said in a statement.

"There are literally thousands of alumni who are devastated," Markham said.

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