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Back To Church In New Sweden, Maine

Worshippers returned to Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church on Sunday, but the scene at the quaint small-town church was anything but normal a week after one member died and 15 others were sickened by arsenic-laced coffee.

For starters, the church was more crowded than worshippers ever could remember, while a phalanx of photographers and TV cameramen waited outside for pictures.

And throughout the 90-minute service, two state troopers guarded the coffee urn.

One week earlier, churchgoers in this northern Maine town of 621 residents experienced something they see only on TV or in mystery novels.

People thought the coffee tasted funny. Then those who drank it began getting violently ill. By the time it was over, 15 people were in the hospital and the 78-year-old head usher was dead.

The mystery remains unsolved, even though police announced Saturday they have information linking the poisonings to a longtime church member who died Friday from a gunshot.

Church members, most of whom are descended from Swedish immigrants, wanted this Sunday to be as normal as possible, so after services they moved to an adjoining room for coffee, muffins and doughnuts.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci joined parishioners Sunday.

"We're here to just stand with you, pray with you," Baldacci told the congregation.

The poisoning had several elements of a classic whodunit: a tiny community where everyone knows everyone, a small cast of possible suspects, even a method of killing more commonly found in fiction than in the police blotter.

Gerry Boyle, a mystery writer based in Maine, noted the nature of the crime was as old-fashioned as the town itself. "Someone they know, or thought they knew, has done something unthinkable," he said.

For now, speculation is centering on Daniel Bondeson, 53, whose shooting was reported to authorities as self-inflicted. An autopsy was scheduled for Monday.

Bondeson, the son and grandson of potato farmers, spent most of his life on the land where he was raised in nearby Woodland.

Townspeople describe him as a loner whose interests in running and cross-country skiing were considered somewhat exotic.

Daniel and his brother Carl were among the few local residents still operating a family farm in recent years.

Behind a white farmhouse and large wooden barn, the brothers raised cattle, grain, oats and organic potatoes. So it was on Saturday that detectives found themselves scouring an organic farmer's land for evidence of some long-banned pesticide that might contain arsenic.

Bondeson, who at one time served on the church council, was not one of the 27 people at last Sunday's coffee hour, though churchgoers said Sunday that he did attend a bake sale the previous day.

Many of the quaint images of small-town America still seem to apply in New Sweden, from its tiny post office and lone general store to its orderly cemetery and three tidy churches. Many residents leave their homes unlocked and their car keys in the ignition.

Each summer, they eat Swedish foods, dress in Swedish outfits and play Swedish music at the Midsommar Festival.

"You just don't grasp this type of thing happening in a small community," said Wendell Spooner, a worshipper at Gustav Adolph. "This is something that happens in a big city."

Ties run deep in New Sweden, even deeper than the 1870s, when Swedes began migrating to the rolling hills of northeastern Maine.

Fleeing famine in Europe, they arrived from different Swedish regions as existing Baptist and Lutheran congregations, residents said.

For decades they have endured the inhospitable climate of northern Maine, which has a short growing season. On Sunday, there were still patches of snow on the ground outside the church.

"These people have relied on each other for a long time. And they still have deep relationships with each other and a deep faith in each other," said Associate Bishop Hans Arnesen.

While the mystery continues, the people of New Sweden seem determined to draw strength from each other.

"I guess it's not how hard you fall, but how well you pick yourself up afterwards," Spooner said.

By Kevin Wack