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Fire devastates Maine church

UUA’s Northern New England District sets up relief fund for 125-year-old church.
By Julia Angley
6.10.11

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Fire, smoke, and water damaged the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, Maine.

Fire, smoke, and water damaged the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, Maine, after an electrical fire broke out during the early morning hours of June 6. (Judy Chamberlain)

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, Maine, suffered heavy damage in a fire that started in the early morning hours of Monday, June 6. The fire destroyed the entire rear of the building, gutting the first and second floors.

Historic stained glass windows were shattered. However, a historic Bible given to the church by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was salvaged. Amid the tragedy, the Rev. Sylvia Stocker, minister of the Brunswick congregation, found small miracles. “Our rainbow flag is still hanging on the side of the church,” she said. “We are quite struck that ‘by the dawn's early light, our flag was still there.’”

The church was built in the mid-1880s, with “balloon-style” construction that had no fire stops in the floors, Stocker explained. When faulty wiring on the first floor of the back of the church ignited, the fire went up through the second floor, into the roof of the church, and across the top of the sanctuary to the front of the church.

The front of the church, including the sanctuary, suffered mainly water and smoke damage. The fire was reported at about one o’clock in the morning, Monday, June 6, and though firefighters were quick to respond, the damage was considerable.

Significant among the losses were the church’s stained glass windows. “All of the windows had sentimental value,” said Stocker. “One was created to commemorate a young woman from the church who died a few decades ago whose parents were pillars of the church, and her parents and sibling are members.” Stocker described how firefighters had to break the window in an attempt to save the rest of the building. “It was quite beautiful and handmade. To see that window broken, for me, that really broke my heart.”

Not everything was lost, though. “The fire department was able to rescue a Bible that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave us,” said Stocker. The Bible, housed in a case in the rear of the sanctuary, suffered some smoke damage but was not harmed by the flames. “It’s a symbol in our congregation, so we’re grateful to have that intact,” Stocker said.

The recovery process, however, will be a long one. “We don’t have power. I can’t get to my email list; it’s been hard to make any plans, hard to communicate to the congregation,” said Stocker. Even so, the local media attention paid to the fire has ensured that most congregation members have heard about it, and many members have been coming by to inspect the damage.

The Rev. Mary Higgins, district executive of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Northern New England District, said that the church has already received a lot of support from the surrounding community. “The church is in a central downtown location, everyone knows it, and they have had quite an outpouring already from people in the area,” Higgins said. The Northern New England District has set up a relief fund to aid in the repairs and rebuilding of the church.

Higgins has also asked for donations of a more personal nature. “We’ve sent a request to have every church in the district to send a hymnal with a message of care and concern,” said Higgins. All of the Brunswick church’s hymnals were destroyed in the fire. Higgins is confident that the hymnal drive will be successful. “My guess is that we will have a large response, as there are 73 churches in the district,” she said.

Stocker said the future plans for the church are still up in the air. “We won’t be able to meet in that sanctuary for a long time. I don’t even know if the building can be saved. It’s still standing, but the insurance company will determine that,” she said the morning after the fire.

Though Stocker is awaiting a final determination from the church’s insurance company, she said that it appears as if the back of the church will need to be torn off, the roof will need replacing, and the interior will need to be gutted due to smoke and water damage. It is also possible that the steeple will need to be restored and the vinyl siding replaced, she said.

Despite the extensive damage, Stocker remains hopeful. “We’re taking it one step at a time. We’re going forward with our flower service this Sunday, we’re strong, we’ll keep going, and we’ll find a way forward.”

The congregation plans to hold services—and its annual meeting, which was scheduled for June 12—in the town library.

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