For the Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton and her congregation at Saugatuck Congregational Church, the mantra has been "we are a church without walls" over the last few years.
The phrase is both literal and figurative.
A devastating fire in November 2011 left the church unusable, and the congregation has worshipped at various alternative sites in the interim, including Temple Israel and Compo Beach. But denied use of the sanctuary of their historic church, the congregants developed deeper relationships with people outside their faith.
As they prepare for a ceremonial groundbreaking on Sept. 8 to mark the beginning of reconstruction of the 180-year-old church at 245 Post Road East, the congregation has a sense that the devastating fire was an opportunity disguised as a setback, Patton said.
"No one asks for a fire, but when you have a fire, it's an occasion to pause and ask, `Who are we? Who do we intend to be? And how does our building support that ministry?' "
The fire on the evening of Nov. 20, 2011, ranks as one of the largest fires in Westport during the last decade and probably the most traumatic event for the church's membership.
In addition to claiming a large chunk of the rear roof, it decimated most of the back section of the church. But no one was injured and the oldest parts of the church survived. The extensive damage from the fire left the church unusable, rendering a congregation of about 400 homeless.
The cause of the fire has never been determined, but arson was ruled out as a possibility.
Within a month of the fire, the church found a Sunday worship space -- an idea proposed by Temple Israel's leaders.
The shared house of worship cemented a long-standing relationship between the two congregations. When Temple Israel was founded in 1948, Saugatuck Congregational served as one of its initial worship venues before the temple's building was erected a decade later.
For Patton and her husband, Craig, the fire didn't really hit home. They were living in Simsbury at the time and Saugatuck was in the midst of a search process to find a new pastor. Patton came for her second interview a few weeks after the fire.
"It was during that interview that both the search committee and I felt a clear sense of being called to work together, a strong sense of connection. In churches we often talk about a fit between congregations and pastors, and I think we felt that sense of being well matched as we talked in the weeks after the fire," Patton said.
She joined the congregation in May 2012 and has yet to lead a service in her new church. If the schedule for reconstruction holds, that will change in the late fall of 2014.
John Walsh, head of the church's reconstruction project, said work crews will continue clearing out the structure in the coming weeks in preparation for the rebuilding phase, which should begin in four to six weeks.
"It is a major restoration of the church because of the major damage that was incurred," Walsh said. "At the same time we're going to take the opportunity to make some modifications, improvements to the church that we think make sense and this will allow the church to serve the community for decades and decades to come."
The planned renovation of the church includes the refurbishment of the rooms ruined by the fire and building two new rear entrances, including an entryway for the Saugatuck Nursery School. Where the rear roof collapsed, a new, slightly higher one will be built to allow for third-floor use again. Design plans also call for the creation of a new terrace between the church's garden and Hoskins Hall, a social space underneath the church's sanctuary.
The historic sanctuary and steeple will not be altered.
Church officials acknowledge that the physical recovery of their building has been arduous.
While the fire was mostly contained to the rear section of the church, the blaze and voluminous amounts of water needed to extinguish it caused smoke and water damage throughout the church complex. Cleanup and remediation have consumed more than a year and a half.
Saugatuck Congregational leaders are still working with insurers to settle the church's claim. The blaze inflicted damage worth "millions," according to Walsh.
"Obviously everybody is anxious to get back into our spiritual home, but I think people understand this is not a simple fix because this was a major, major fire that caused extensive damage," Walsh said.
The Sept. 8 groundbreaking ceremony will be held on the front lawn of the church and will include a reception.
"It will be an occasion to celebrate a landmark moment in this process and to thank a community that has been tremendously supportive since we suffered the fire," Patton said.