Part of the building was left standing after the fire, and the congregation was faced with deciding between restoring what was left or rebuilding part or all of the structure. After considering the congregation's needs and finances, members voted in September to tear down the entire structure, including a bell tower, and rebuild on that site.
“The building was badly weakened by the fire. We would have had to spend a great deal of money just shoring up the damaged structure so that it would make it through the winter,” said the congregation's minister, the Rev. Sylvia Stocker. “Many considered it more practical financially to build a new structure that would better meet the needs of today.”
The new building will be handicapped accessible and as green as the congregation’s budget will allow.
In the fire the congregation lost some stained glass windows, but saved others. It rescued the bell, a finial that topped the steeple, and the sign over the door. Several water-damaged pews have been set aside for refinishing and for use in the new sanctuary as a way of connecting past and future. Firefighters rescued from the blaze a Bible given to the church by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The congregation met Dec. 3 on the front steps of the damaged structure for a ceremony to say goodbye to it. Stocker noted that at least seven generations of congregants have passed through the building in its 126-year history. The congregation was founded in 1812. A previous building burned in 1884, leaving nothing but the bell behind—a bell that has now survived two fires.
At the ceremony, Stocker spoke about the loss and the congregation’s desire to recover and rebuild. She said, “Today we gather to bless this house, to express our gratitude for its physical, emotional, and spiritual shelter, and to bid goodbye. We say goodbye knowing we follow the example of courage and determination of our forebears who built their jewel of a meeting house here on this corner after their own church had burned. We say goodbye knowing we follow in their footsteps, confident that we will rebuild a meeting house here worthy of the sacrifices they made.”
The damaged building was razed 17 days after the ceremony. Work has begun on developing plans for a new building which could be in place a year from now. A separate office building the congregation owns behind the church was relatively undamaged by the fire.
The 185-member congregation is in the early stages of a capital campaign for a new building. “We are enormously grateful to the many UU congregations that have already reached out to help us,” Stocker said. The congregation has been holding Sunday services at the Beth Israel Congregation of Bath, Maine.
The Northern New England District has selected the congregation to receive a Chalice Lighter grant. Contributions may be made either to the Chalice Lighter program or to a building fund at the congregation’s website.