'Everyone has a place at this table:' Saugatuck Church celebrates reconstruction

It's a house that refused to be divided.

Despite suffering extensive damage to their house of worship from a fire just before Thanksgiving of November 2011, the members of Saugatuck Congregational Church are united in focusing on a mission of renewal.

They staged a special service Sunday on the front lawn of the landmark Post Road East church, with several hundred people celebrating its future as reconstruction gets underway.

"Just in the last couple of weeks we've begun the physical work to restoring this building," said the Rev. Alison Patton, the church's senior minister. "We are hopeful that we'll be back in the church in late 2014."

To mark the good news, a "Ground Blessing" ceremony was part of Sunday's program. Ten people chosen to represent the congregation's community took part, including a representative from Boy Scout Troop 36, which has been housed at the church for many years, a representative of the Y's Men, which has met at the building for decades, and various congregants as well.

"It's intended to signify our community partnership and what it means to us to have that building back," Patton said.

The blaze that erupted the night of Nov. 20, 2011, burned for six hours and ravaged the rear portion of the church complex, destroying the area that housed a nursery school, offices, meeting rooms and the kitchen. Although the historic sanctuary was largely spared damage from the flames, smoke and water damage took its took.

The congregation has not been used since the fire, and services have been relocated to Temple Israel while the church's large community events -- such as the annual community dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas -- have been housed at Christ and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

The Sunday gathering under sunny, late-summer skies underscored the 181-year-old congregation's positive mood despite the long-term recovery project, as food was barbecued, games were played and congregants helped assemble 50 buckets of emergency supplies to be donated to Church World Services as part of a Hands-On Service project.

"This is a very special day for our fabulous church," said William Meyer, who met his wife, Carolyn, at Saugatuck 18 years ago.

"It's great," said Jim Abby of Norwalk. "It's great for the kids. It's a beautiful day and it's a nice event for everybody."

"It's just a wonderful kick-off of a wonderful new church year," said Cece Saunders of Westport, "and a kick-off for the new construction."

"We have continued to be an active worshipping community," Patton said, acknowledging the help of Temple Israel in providing temporary quarters for church services.

Consequently, Patton said in her sermon, Saugatuck has learned the value in welcoming all people to its community.

"Every time the table is rearranged, we make new friends," she said. "And there's always room for more ... Everyone has a place at this table."