The Rev. Kerry Mansir walks around branches Wednesday from a limb that fell in the St. Ann’s churchyard, next to Christ Episcopal Church in Gardiner, during a storm Tuesday. A thunderstorm rolled across Kennebec County at about 9 p.m. Tuesday, leaving felled trees in its wake. The National Weather Service is forecasting Tropical Storm Elsa will arrive in Maine early Friday. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER — A thunderstorm that blew through the region Tuesday night split a tree at the historic St. Ann’s churchyard in Gardiner, damaging at least four headstones.

And with Tropical Storm Elsa expected to push through the area Friday, officials at Christ Episcopal Church at 2 Dresden Ave. were hoping Thursday the portion of the tree still standing would not come down and cause more damage before it can be removed next week.

“The town had mentioned a different tree in the courtyard that we were a little more concerned about,” Ward Boudreau, deputy warden of Christ Church, said Thursday.

But the tree that split, a maple that has been standing at the edge the churchyard for an estimated 200 years, had not attracted any notice. The tree split vertically, dropping a massive portion of the trunk and branches over four headstones, and narrowly missing a line of other stones.

The tree’s exposed core shows its central part has rotted away and shelf fungus has been growing in the void.

Christ Episcopal Church has contracted with Spicer Tree Specialists of Whitefield to remove this fallen section of a maple tree, seen Thursday, and the portion still standing. Ward Boudreau, junior church warden, said some of the wood will be set aside to make memory boxes or other mementos. Jessica Lowell/Kennebec Journal

Becky Colwell, administrator for Christ Church, said officials with Spicer Tree Specialists of Whitefield have said they would be careful not to further damage the headstones in the churchyard during removal.

For more than five years, a small group of volunteers has been working to find, piece together and set in place headstones in the churchyard that is older than Christ Church, which celebrated its bicentennial last fall.

A church dedicated to St. Ann was first built on site in the 1770s, the first Episcopal church in the diocese of Maine. By the time construction had been completed on the current church in 1820, the original church had burned and its replacement had been outgrown. But its churchyard remained. And in the decades since, headstones had been broken off, some piled at the edge of the churchyard and others stacked in the basement.

Before Tuesday’s storm, the volunteers had only three more headstones to place.

These headstones at Gardiner’s historic St. Ann’s churchyard, seen Thursday, narrowly missed destruction when a maple tree estimated at 200 years old split during a storm Tuesday night. Jessica Lowell/Kennebec Journal

Dawn Thistle, Gardiner Public Library’s archive librarian who has helped research the location of the missing headstones, said when she looked at the site Wednesday, four headstones appeared to be damaged.

Two of the headstones had already undergone extensive repairs, requiring 20 or more pieces to be cemented together. Those repairs appear to be intact, Thistle said. One seems to have been snapped off, and will only need be cemented back into place. The back of another appears to have popped off.

“Two of them suffered more, as far as I can tell,” she said.

Boudreau said he and others had been thinking about where to plant trees in the courtyard. But with his background as a maker of fine furniture, Boudreau said he had spoken to Ryan Spicer about setting aside some of the wood from the downed maple to make memory boxes or other mementos.

Boudreau said he also noticed a couple of spots of burl, which are highly prized in woodworking.

Because of the rot at the core of the tree, it would not be possible to get sizable boards, but other possibilities exist.

“It’s what any good woodworker would do: Set it aside and wait for the project to come along,” Boudreau said. “There’s so much we could do.”

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