The preacher and the outbreak

For the Sanford pastor at the center of the East Millinocket wedding, sin is ‘a pandemic worse than the coronavirus.’ Now his church has multiple COVID-19 cases.
people walk into the Calvary Baptist Church
People enter Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford for services Sunday, Aug. 30, less than 24 hours after the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced five COVID-19 cases among people affiliated with the church. The church's founder and pastor, Todd Bell, officiated the Aug. 7 East Millinocket wedding that has prompted the state's largest outbreak. Photo by Jill Brady.

As news broke about Calvary Baptist Church’s COVID-19 outbreak, Pastor Todd Bell shined his black shoes.

Before the Sanford reverend spoke to his church, Bell took a picture of his polished wingtips and his leather-bound black Bible resting on the corner of his desk. 

“Shoes polished! Bible message in the works! Saturday nights are special! Well GLORY!!!” Bell noted on his Facebook page Saturday. 

Earlier in the day, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced five confirmed COVID-19 cases among people affiliated with the Sanford church Bell founded in 2003. 

The new infections, the CDC said, appear to be connected to Maine’s largest outbreak prompted by an Aug. 7 wedding reception and service Bell officiated at the Tri Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket — a church he also founded, in 1996.  

On Aug. 6, the day before the wedding, Bell tweeted pictures of himself and his wife Amy in his Cessna plane. 

Pastor Todd Bell tweeted this image of himself and his wife in his Cessna plane on Aug. 6 as he prepared to fly north to officiate the East Millinocket wedding that has prompted Maine’s largest outbreak of COVID-19.

“Flying out to marry a couple in Northern Maine! #C310 #GeneralAviation,” he posted on his Twitter account.

A self-described ‘Preacher Pilot,’ Bell, who moved to Maine from Canton, North Carolina in the 1990s, flies his private plane around Maine to minister to churches in the state’s rural areas. The Tri Town Baptist Church wedding and its reception at the Big Moose Inn — which violated state pandemic gathering restrictions and masking mandates — spread the virus from the northern rural woods of Millinocket to the southwestern corners of York County. Wedding guests and people hired for the event brought COVID-19 home to their families and to their workplaces. 

In the shadow of Mt. Katahdin, the state’s rural communities that were untouched by the pandemic are now reeling to contain the virus. Local schools have delayed reopening. Businesses, government offices and libraries have shut down. 

Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine’s CDC director, likened the outbreak to a “powder keg.”

“It suggests that there was already transmission happening in Penobscot County by the attendees,” Shah said at a press briefing. “And when they came together it was sort kind of like a powder keg that was giving off sparks and generated a higher than expected number of cases.”

The wedding infections have sickened more than 123 people, infecting 11 employees and residents at the Maplecrest Rehabilitation & Living Center in Madison, 66 at the York County Jail in Alfred, and six teachers and two students in the East Millinocket school district.

The outbreak also killed 83-year-old Theresa Dentremont, who died Aug. 21 after she contracted COVID-19 from a wedding guest. 

The rapid spread of COVID-19 that has now infected Bell’s Sanford church is alarming, said Shah, and has jeopardized Maine’s low virus infection rate.  

“It can spiral,” Shah warned. “That’s what concerns me right now. (The cases) could keep growing and growing and growing.” 

Gov. Janet Mills, who has issued more than 60 executive orders since mid-March to mitigate the spread of the virus and contain its impact on Maine, echoed Shah’s concerns.

“One person,” she said, “one contact can light a match and spark a fire that we may be unable to put out.”

Run ‘by faith, not fear’

On a brisk Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after the CDC announced the outbreak at Calvary Baptist Church, young and old filed into the Sanford church. Many of the churchgoers were unmasked as they entered the August 30 service.  

Despite the CDC’s warning that anyone who attended services from Aug. 9-23 or attended the church’s Vacation Bible School from Aug. 10-14 was potentially exposed to the virus, Bell welcomed his unmasked constituents. 

At the service on Sunday, according to News Center Maine, Bell referenced the Aug. 7 wedding in Millinocket.

“I went to the wedding. I officiated the wedding. It was a beautiful wedding,” Bell said to his congregation. “Six families from our church went there. We never expected to get COVID. Nobody expected to experience the things that happened because you went to a beautiful thing like that.”

Neither Bell nor the Tri Town Church has been sanctioned for the outbreak, but Robert Long, CDC spokesman said Monday, “epidemiological investigation into the outbreak at Calvary Baptist Church also remains underway, including determining the extent of links to other outbreaks in York and Penobscot counties.”

Bell, who told the Portland Press Herald on Sunday in an email that members of his congregation are recovering well from the pandemic, including his 78-year-old father, did not return repeated phone calls made by The Maine Monitor.   

Elisabeth Bell, Todd Bell’s daughter, updated her Facebook cover photo to this image in early May. Elisabeth Bell is one of two of the pastor’s children who shared support for her father on social media in May, after Sanford’s police chief told him he would be arrested if he violated Gov. Janet Mills’ 10-person limit on indoor gatherings by hosting in-person services. The Bell family has aligned themselves with President Trump’s philosophies that pandemic restrictions should not subvert personal liberties and that masks are not necessary to battle COVID-19.

Since COVID-19 broke out in Maine in mid-March, Bell and his family have pushed back against  Mills’ pandemic regulations. He has posted pictures on social media over the past few months of the church choir singing unmasked, shoulder to shoulder. Following a June service, he shared pictures of elderly and young congregants closely lined up in front of the pulpit. They stood unmasked alongside Bell, his youngest daughter and the family’s poodle.

Noting in social media that his church and its Sanford Christian Academy School are run “by faith, not fear,” Bell railed against reporters for spreading lies about him and the wedding outbreak during his Wednesday, Aug. 26 sermon. The video posted on the church’s YouTube channel showed Bell standing behind the pulpit. His voice rose as he warned his congregants to beware of Satan and lies.

“Satan could fill the heart of an individual and cause them to lie to the Holy Ghost,” Bell said. “Lies are awful … And we have a lot of that rubbish that is going on right now in context of your own preacher. And we must be careful of these things … This is lying to the Holy Ghost. This is lying to God.”

In recent days, two of Bell’s four children urged support for their father on Facebook and Twitter. 

“Don’t believe what you hear from the media,” Bell’s daughter Cherith tweeted Aug. 27, with a photograph of herself and her father.  “Lies will continue, and defamation will reign down heavily; but at the end of the day, this man will continue to be faithful to the God who has already brought us this far and will take us even farther by His grace. #StandWithPastorBell.” 

Over the weekend, Bell and his daughter’s social media posts were either removed or locked to the public. The church’s Facebook page has also been shut down.

Early in the pandemic, Bell planned to reopen his church in early May despite Mills’ stay-at-home order and 10-person limit on indoor gatherings.

He reconsidered holding the indoor service after receiving a phone call from the Sanford police chief. Cherith Bell, a teacher and volleyball coach at the church’s private school, tweeted on May 7 about the state’s indoor mandates. 

“Sad day in America,” Bell wrote, “when my father is called by the chief of police with embarrassment and remorse and told that he will be arrested if he has church in our building on Sunday.”  

Cherith’s older sister Elisabeth, who lives in Lebanon, also tweeted about the police call. 

“America, Maine… it’s time to wake up and stand together. They’ve taken so much from you already, will you bow your heads and submit to the tyranny while they strip you of your rights to worship God?

“Please pray for my dad as he navigates through this. He has already said he will stand for truth, always. I’ll be standing with him.” 

Elisabeth, who updated her Facebook cover photo in early May with a picture of her holding an assault weapon in her right hand and a large Trump 2020 banner in her left, ended her tweet with the tags: #FirstAmendment #FreedomToWorship #MillsHasGoneToFar #StandForTruth. 

This image captured via a YouTube broadcast on Sunday morning (Aug. 30) shows at least 15 adults gathered closely on stage singing at the beginning of service at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford. On Saturday (Aug. 29), the Maine CDC announced a coronavirus outbreak at the church.

Bell stays silent about victims

Two years after he moved from North Carolina to Maine, Bell strolled through the streets of his East Millinocket community, contemplating how to spread his mission to plant more Baptist churches in the state’s rural pockets. 

“While taking a prayer walk around town, the God of Heaven placed within my heart a burden for the ‘next towns,’ ” Bell recollected in his aviation ministry biography. “I began to raise the question in my own personal prayer time, ‘what about the other towns of Maine?’ ”  

Bell began to pray about his childhood passion to fly airplanes. He asked the Lord “if He would allow me to get my pilot’s license and begin to reach out into other towns with the life-changing message of the gospel.  I prayed on this thought for months. After several months of searching my heart and receiving peace from the Lord, I started my flight training.”

His Tri County Baptist Church, Bell said, ‘was very gracious to pay for my private pilot’s license.’  

After buying his first plane, Bell birthed the Wings with the Word, Inc., his aviation ministry. With the use of airplanes, Bell explained he was able to fly to churches all over the state. 

“What a joy it was to begin to reach out to other communities while still being able to pastor the church in the town where I was living. I felt like a circuit-riding preacher, but on a modern ‘horse!’”

After he moved his family to Sanford in 2003 and opened his downtown church, Bell, according to his biography, continued his mission to spread the gospel and establish churches in remote parts of the state.

Under Bell’s leadership the Calvary Baptist Church founded the Island Baptist Church on Islesboro, the First Baptist Church of Jackman, the Providence Baptist Church in Fort Kent, the Gospel Light Baptist Church in New Vineyard and Hope Bible Baptist Church in Whiting. 

Theresa Dentremont, center, died Aug. 21 at age 83 after she contracted COVID-19 from a guest of the East Millinocket wedding. Her 97-year-old husband, Frank (left), was also infected but is scheduled to be released from Millinocket Regional Hospital this week, according to his son, Frank Dentremont Jr. (right).

In a week, on Sept. 8, Bell plans to re-open the church’s Sanford Christian Academy that he founded in 2010. Bell’s wife Amy works at the school as its secretary, along with Bell’s daughter Cherith, one of the school’s teachers. Despite Mills’ mandate that students and teachers wear masks, the school website notes that masks are optional. 

The suggested supply list for its nearly 60 enrolled K-12 students includes a KJV or King James Version Bible, three boxes of tissues, pencils, pens, erasers and notebooks, but makes no mention of masks. 

On Aug. 5, two days before the wedding, Bell tweeted ‘School enrollment is up!’ He included a photo of young children (date unknown) gathered around the church pulpit in uniform. Over the photo, he wrote in bold letters: “A school that loves people, that loves God, loves our country and stands for truth!” 

While the York County Jail, the Madison nursing home, businesses and schools in the Millinocket region continue to grapple with the fallout from the early August wedding, Frank Dentremont Jr. posted ‘miraculous’ news on his Facebook page Monday morning.

Dentremont, who lost his stepmother Theresa to the outbreak, feared losing his 97-year-old father Frank, who also contracted the virus and was hospitalized. After being placed on oxygen and receiving antiviral therapy, the World War II veteran who fought during the Battle of the Bulge, is scheduled to be released from the Millinocket Regional Hospital this week, his son said.  

Dentremont, who owns a dental practice in Alabama, explained, “With the help of modern medical science, wonderful care at MRH by a dedicated medical staff, and prayers lifted up by the boatloads, my dad has miraculously recovered from Covid-19 at the tender age of 97!

This horrible time of grief for my step-siblings and myself in the loss of my stepmom and my father’s grave illness has been mediated in part by the miraculous recovery of my dad.”

Bell has said little publicly or on his social media accounts about the outbreak victims like Theresa and Frank Dentremont. His silence about the victims concerned retired nurse Kathy Day, who grew up in Millinocket. 

“I still have family and friends there and this has torn the community up,” said Day, who now lives in Bangor. “This is a tiny, pristine part of the state. People thought they were safe. I don’t understand why Bell has not expressed a word of remorse for these people.”

Day also wonders if Bell quarantined after he was told about the wedding outbreak and following a New England Baptist Fellowship conference on Aug. 4 in Coventry, Rhode Island — a state with higher infection rates than Maine. A brochure for the event shows ministers from around New England listed as speakers, including Bell.

“He comes home from that conference and a few days later, Aug. 6, he is flying up to Millinocket in his plane,” Day said.

As Maine health officials continue to monitor the outbreak and the virus which has infected 4,489 and killed 123 in the state, Bell remains vigilant in his belief that “there is a pandemic worse than the corona virus – sin!”

Two weeks after the Millinocket wedding, Bell tweeted a photo of himself standing at the pulpit.

Words embedded in the photo explain: “People tell me, ‘Pastor Bell, you’re treading on thin ice.’ Well, I think the ice is pretty thick under me because I’m standing on the word of God.” 


Barbara A. Walsh

Barbara A. Walsh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for newspapers in Ireland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Florida. While working at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, Walsh reported on first-degree killer William Horton Jr. and Massachusetts’ flawed prison-furlough system. The series changed in-state sentencing and furlough laws and won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize. During her career at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Barbara wrote in-depth series on several social issues in Maine. Many of her stories changed laws and earned national, state and regional awards.
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