Brunswick church returns from the ashes of 2011 fire
BRUNSWICK — The Rev. Sylvia Stocker said she remembers standing outside the Unitarian Universalist Church on June 6, 2011, as it was engulfed in flames and smoke, feeling shocked and devastated, as if her whole world had collapsed.
"Standing on the sidewalk, I remember there were TV reporters there," she said on a recent Saturday, "and I remember saying every time I got interviewed, 'we will be having church on Sunday somewhere,' but thinking where?"
Nearly three years later, Stocker and her congregation finally have an answer.
For the first time, the Unitarian Universalist Church will meet for its Sunday service at 10 a.m in a newly completed building at 1 Middle St., where the church's previous 126-year-old building was destroyed by the fire.
The congregation has been worshipping at the Beth Israel Congregation Minnie Brown Center in Bath. It also used the Morrell Meeting Room at Curtis Memorial Library for a few months.
To finally be at this point, Stocker said, she feels "a mixture of joy and great satisfaction and a huge amount of gratitude," mainly for everyone in the community who rallied to help when the church needed it the most.
Stocker said the new building is a "21st century church with a few 19th century accents left from the old church," including a few chairs from the 1800s that had to be repaired after being salvaged from the fire.
Construction on the church began last year, and it is now largely finished.
Jessica Tracy, a 15-year congregation member who served on its recovery and building teams, said when visitors enter the church from Middle Street on Sunday, they might first notice how bright its sanctuary is inside, with sunlight flooding in from windows on all sides.
The idea was to make the room "bright and light," she said, which runs in great contrast to the old building's dark sanctuary.
Tracy, who was helping Stocker prepare for the upcoming service , said she remembers hearing the "oos and the aahs" from some members when they first came inside the sanctuary for a preview a couple weeks ago.
"When you look at the outside, some people like it and some people don't," she said, "but when you come in, I think you can't help but like it."
Stocker said the expanded seating in the sanctuary will accommodate more people than the previous building, which required two services to make room for the entire 190-member congregation and other visitors.
She added that all of the chairs in the sanctuary are movable, so it can serve as a multi-purpose room. She said the church's office administrator has already received a flood of calls about using the space, filling up its calendar.
While some of the groups calling to book events may not be officially associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church, Stocker said "they're part of the reach of the church. ... Part of our mission is 'to welcome all,' so that's part of it."
Michael Heath, a 17-year member who served on the church's recovery team, building team and board of trustees, said accessibility is a big theme for the church in a few different ways.
"One of the important goals in building the new church is accessibility to the community, being here in town, where people felt comfortable and wanted to use the building," he said. "That's been critical in our thinking all along."
Accessibility also means easy access for all members and visitors, he said, saying that's why the church was built on one level.
Other differences from the previous building include expanded meeting space, a larger kitchen, and solar panels installed on the roof. In addition, the religious education room, which was previously in the Pennell House that used to be next to the old church, is now housed in the same building.
There are also high-definition TV screens on both sides of the sanctuary. Stocker said they will likely be used to display words to hymns being sung, photos from past events and videos for Sunday service.
Funding for the construction was made possible by over $1 million in donations and pledges for a capital campaign, and a bridge loan provided by Atlantic Regional Federal Credit Union, Stocker said.
She said the capital campaign still has one more year to go, with plans to finish fundraising efforts by June 2015.
"It's an amazing time," Stocker said.