Westport church installs final piece of 8-year renovation journey

WESTPORT — A new, custom-built pipe organ marks the final piece of an eight-year journey for Saugatuck Congregational Church after a devastating fire years ago.

The organ will be dedicated on Oct. 13 at 2 p.m. with a free performance for the community, and will signify the end of a rebuild that started after a fire partially destroyed the historic church on Nov. 20, 2011.

Heather Hamilton, music director at Saugatuck Church, said upon visiting the church following the fire she saw firsthand the destruction left behind.

“When I walked into the choir room the whole wall was not there. I was looking at the trees,” she recalled. “The piano was pushed across the room from the blast of the fire hose, and it was so charred you couldn’t even tell what color it was anymore.”

The sweeping fire damaged the kitchens, meeting rooms, and left behind soot as well as water damage from the fire department’s hose. Five pianos, the church’s original pipe organ and 100 years worth of music were also destroyed. To date, the cause of the blaze is unknown.

Following the fire, the congregation was displaced for four years, worshiping at Temple Israel and other churches before reopening in 2015.

“A lot of the community here in Westport helped us get to the next place,” Hamilton said. “Within hours, the Temple of Israel offered us the use of their space for worship.”

Temple Israel’s gesture came not only an act of kindness, but represented a full-circle moment for its long established relationship with Saugatuck Church. Hamilton said when Temple Israel was first built in the 1950s, they found difficulty finding an alternative place to worship.

“Because they were a Jewish temple, people didn’t open their doors to them, but we did,” she said. “It came full circle.”

The church was able to continue holding their community programs, such as its Thanksgiving feasts, at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal.

“We were feeding people on Thanksgiving the week of a fire over at Christ & Holy Trinity working togeher as a community,” Hamilton said.

The Unitarian Church also offered its space so Saugatuck Congregational’s choir could rehearse. Now, organists from these same local churches will come together to play in the upcoming dedication service.

“A tragic event ended up becoming a positive community experience,” Hamilton said. “Now eight years later we’re coming together again as a community.”

Jack Leaman, a member of Saugatuck Congregational for over 50 years, said seeing the church fully restored while maintaining all of its history was emotional.

“It’s always wonderful to come back to what you’ve been used to for so many years,” Leaman said. “They even re-did the pews in the exact same fashion. ... Everything looks exactly the way it looks before the fire.”

Joanne Leaman, another member of Saugatuck Congregational, said to see the church restored to what it once was helped maintain the building’s long history.

“When you think of all the people who have worshiped here, who have married here, who’ve been baptized here ... they’re all in this place. That energy is here,” she said. “It’s really very emotional.”

The Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton noted the journey of the church being rebuilt showed the congregation was more than its building.

“In the years immediately following the fire, we talked about ourselves as a church without walls,” she said. “We are a community of faith and we relied on our partners to help sustain us.”

Now, as a church looking to work beyond its walls, she said she was proud to open its doors to the community.

“There is energy and vitality in the current church as we stand on the shoulders of members of generations past who built and sustained this church,” she said. “We also benefit from the bright light of new people here in our midst. We couldn’t be who we are without the connections to the wider Westport community.”