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Strong in spirit, Saugatuck church shows its fire scars

Updated 9:03 am, Friday, December 23, 2011

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  • Pictured is the choir room of Saugatuck Congregational Church, which was heavily damaged during a Nov. 20 fire. Members of the media were given a tour of the church Thursday afternoon. Photo: Kirk Lang
    Pictured is the choir room of Saugatuck Congregational Church, which was heavily damaged during a Nov. 20 fire. Members of the media were given a tour of the church Thursday afternoon. Photo: Kirk Lang

 

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A fire-scarred Westport sanctuary, one of the town's most prominent houses of worship for nearly two centuries, is now filled with scaffolding, plastic sheeting and wooden boards. Blocks and stuffed animals that will likely never be touched by a child's hand again are scattered in what once was a nursery school.

Saugatuck Congregational Church, slowly beginning to recover from a Nov. 20 fire that ravaged part of its Post Road East complex, was opened to a press tour Thursday afternoon for the first time since the six-alarm blaze.

Fire investigators have yet to pinpoint a cause of the fire. Church officials, meanwhile, continue to work with insurance representatives to determine the complete extent of the damage.

The 179-year-old sanctuary, despite the welter of construction equipment, escaped the worst of the fire, suffering primarily smoke and water damage.

The most serious damage inflicted by the blaze was in a newer section of the complex behind the sanctuary, which housed church offices, meeting rooms, a kitchen and a nursery school.

The church kitchen, where so many holiday feasts for the community were cooked, is now an empty shell. There is no sink, no stove, no nothing.

"It's down to the studs," said Jeffrey Boak, the congregation's moderator.

It is still too early to tell if the area behind the sanctuary can be renovated and reopened, according to John Walsh, chairman of the church Board of Trustees.

However, the congregation and its community supporters are doing all they can to bring the church fully back to life.

"The reaction of church members has sort of been a stiffening of resolve," said Boak. "We're seeing some people come back that we haven't seen as often as we used to." He added that donations from congregation members have grown, and contributions from the community at large have been generous.

"It's been heartwarming, but it's still a challenge," he said.

Thursday's tour revealed exposed sheetrock, light fixtures and toys scattered about, as well as holes in the floors. An $80,000 renovation to the nursery school -- adding an extra room a level above the rest of the nursery -- had been in use only since September.

Nearly all the roof over the church's choir room was burned away, and Saugatuck's iconic steeple towered overhead.

"We lost 21,000 sheets of music, five pianos, two organs and one harpsichord, " said Betsy Gillespie, a church trustee.

Church services have been temporarily relocated to Temple Israel.

A statement given to reporters Thursday stated: "The fire was devastating to our physical home, but the spirit of Saugatuck Church is very much alive."