A movie production crew arrived in Ben Avon in 1991 and suddenly the tiny borough of broad-shouldered trees and turn-of-the-century homes was transformed. A very convincing fake house emerged on Woodland Avenue (the house had no foundation or plumbing and its stairwell went nowhere) and children once again streamed from the front doors of the abandoned Ben Avon Elementary School.
You’ve gotta love Hollywood.
The crew was filming “Lorenzo’s Oil,” a drama starring Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte as parents determined to find a cure for the rare, deadly genetic disease afflicting their young son Lorenzo. Production would cause quite a stir on Ben Avon, but in the midst of all the movie magic, an ugly reality elbowed its way into the script.
Early on the morning of Oct. 22, fire destroyed a much-loved and stately stone church located across the street from the movie set. A black-and-white picture published in The Pittsburgh Press that day shows the frame of a massive stained glass window silhouetted against a wall of white flame. The building was hopelessly engulfed by a blaze that showered a three-block area with red-hot embers.
For eight decades, the Woodland United Presbyterian Church stood as a cornerstone of Ben Avon. It was a place of weddings, baptisms, public meetings, community theater performances, education and, of course, worship.
Woodland had merged with nearby Ben Avon Presbyterian Church in 1987, so at the time of the fire few worship services were held there. Still, the church was a busy place, home to church offices, archives, a preschool and a number of community programs. Residents took the loss hard. “It’s being dealt with like a death in the family,” said an assistant pastor.
Within days, a team of investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began sifting and shoveling through the debris. Intense heat had charred every wood surface except the sanctuary floor. The slate roof had collapsed and, in some portions of the church, fallen with enough force to cause the floor below to give way. Pews had disintegrated in place, leaving rows of ashes and scorched planks. Except for the swishing sound of a broom used by an ATF agent to gather ashes, the sanctuary was eerily quiet.
The ATF determined an arsonist was responsible for the inferno that destroyed a beloved structure as well as decades of records reflecting the spiritual life of the community. Who started the fire? The question remains unanswered. No arrests were made.
Elements of the church can still be found in the community. Woodland’s bell, cornerstone and four stone windows were incorporated into an addition to the merged church, Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon.
How did the Hollywood folks react? Well, despite the loss of a structure that loomed so prominently in a handful of scenes, filming of Lorenzo’s Oil continued on schedule. Producers did make one adjustment — three weeks later they filmed firefighters battling a recreation of the church blaze so a scene could be written into the script explaining changes in the church’s appearance.
Of course, you can watch Lorenzo’s Oil if you’re interested in seeing the Woodland Church as it was in its final days. It’s there in one of the movie’s early scenes, as the son Lorenzo arrives home from school and is greeted by his beaming mother. The characters have no idea disease and disaster await. The church’s red door and high peaked roof provide a perfect backdrop.