An early morning fire yesterday destroyed the 84-year-old Ascension Catholic Church, long a landmark in the old railroad community of Bowie.

Fire officials in Prince George's County said the blaze, reported shortly before 3 a.m., caused an estimated $400,000 damages to the church located at 12600 Lanham Severn Rd. Four firemen were injured in the fire, the cause of which is still under investigation.

As firemen kept an eye on the smoldering ruins yesterday, dozens of parishioners stood nearby gazing at the remains of the wood framed church.

"It was a landmark," said Ned Mullikin, who said his father helped build the church in 1893. He said the church's steeple was a familar sight and could be seen for miles throughout the community.

The church was established by Jesuit Fathers after many railroad employees began settling in Bowie during the late 19the century, according to parishioner Dorothy M. DiGregory.

The church was noted for its paintings, statues and stained glass windows. A large painting of the ascension, displayed behind the altar, was considered "priceless," according to DiGregory, who has been studying the church's history.

"People would come from all around just to look at that picture," said Mullikin's wife, Ida.

The church's congregation had been declining in size in recent years as more churches moved into the Bowie area, some parishioners said. There are currently 460 families in the church, Mullikin said.

"It's a sentimental loss," said Mullikin as he watched the firemen water down the ashes. "I was born (in Bowie) and baptized here. I went to Sunday School here. My children were baptized here."

The church had fire insurance, but as DiGregory said, "all the fire insurance in the world can't replace the sentiments there."

"It was a beautiful church," said 78-year-old Marie Maenner, whose father-in-law in 1894 helped transport the ascension painting from Georgetown to the church, which is still located in a rural Bowie area where horses roam on nearby farmland. Some single-family homes are nearby.

"Now we have to save our money to build another church," said Norma Stevens, whose grandmother used to play the church organ.

A parishioner has offer the use of a hall until the church can be rebuilt. However, the Rev. Peter C. Boyle said the church has not made a decision on where future services will be held.

Fire officials yesterday said the blaze started in the basement and rapidly spread throughout the wood and stucco structure. Portions of three wals remain standing.

Firemen were prevented from going inside the remaining structure to investigate the cause of the fire yesterday because they feared that the walls would collapse.

Sixty firemen fought the fire, which was brought under control at 4:30 a.m., a fire official said.

Three firemen were treated for minor injuries at Prince George's General Hospital and later released. A fourth fireman, James Wilson, 19, was admitted to the hospital for treatment of a hand injury.