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Fire destroys Rock Tavern UU church

UU Congregation at Rock Tavern, N.Y., loses sanctuary and classroom buildings.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Burned UU church

A member of the UU Congregation at Rock Tavern, N.Y., walks in front of the burned church on September 12. (Times Herald-Record/Dominick Fiorille)

Fire destroyed the two buildings of the UU Congregation at Rock Tavern, N.Y., early Tuesday morning, Sept. 12. James Bridges, minister of the 60-member congregation since 1998, said no cause had been determined for the fire.

“At this point it’s being viewed as suspicious and police and fire officials are investigating,” he said. “A second possibility is it could have been an electrical fire.” He said he was called by the fire department at 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday and arrived at the church just before firemen. Captain Tom Lucchesi of the Vails Gate Fire Company told a local newspaper the fire had a good start and it took firemen 40 minutes to put it out. Rock Tavern is 69 miles north of New York City and 19 miles from West Point.

The congregation had two buildings, both in a modified A-frame or inverted parabola style, each 30 by 40 ft. in size. “They looked like two boats turned upside down,” said Bridges. One structure was used exclusively for worship. “It had a huge vaulted ceiling with wooden beams and was a really spiritual, contemplative place,” he said. The second building was used for religious education and for offices. The congregation has 12 to 15 children enrolled in education programs. There was no one in the buildings when the fire occurred. A Montessori school uses the church during the week, but teachers and students had not yet arrived.

Bridges was at the church Monday night for a board meeting. “I was the last one out,” he said. “Everything was fine.” The fire appeared to have originated in the sanctuary, he said.

The board met again Tuesday night at Bridges’ home along with Andrea Lerner and the Rev. Calvin Dame, religious education and congregational services consultants, respectively, with the Metropolitan New York District of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, of which the congregation is a member.

Bridges said there will be a worship service Sunday at the site. “We’re telling people to bring lawn chairs. This will be a time of grieving the loss of our building and a time for celebrating the rebirth of the congregation.” He said several adjacent churches have offered temporary space. “We’ll probably accept one of those offers.” The loss is covered by insurance, he said. The buildings were constructed in the 1960s. The church was organized in 1868.

Bridges is optimistic about the church’s future. “We’re a viable congregation providing a place for liberal religion in a rapidly-growing area,” he said. “I believe we’ll come out of this stronger and larger.”

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