Saugatuck vigil: Community supports 'great church' after devastating fire
A day after being ravaged by fire, the iconic profile of Saugatuck Congregational Church still towered over downtown Westport.
With the church's white steeple as a backdrop, congregants and others assembled Monday night on the front lawn of the Post Road East congregation for an emotional interdenominational service to rally community support for the house of worship where a six-hour fire erupted late Sunday. The blaze inflicted serious damage at the rear of the church complex, but the 179-year-old sanctuary escaped serious damage.
"We are bound and determined that we will be moving forward," said Doug Johnston, chairman of the church's diaconate. "You can smell change in the air tonight, and we hope to make that a far sweeter smell in the future."
Less than 24 hours before, a stronger odor of smoke had engulfed the Saugatuck Congregational grounds as a conflagration devastated much of the rear of the church, where offices, meeting rooms and a nursery school were housed.
While some of about 200 people at the service wiped away tears, the Saugatuck church choir and attendees sang robust renditions of hymns such as "Spirit of the Living God" and "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds."
"This church has meant so much to us," said John Canning, a member of the congregation for about 30 years. "It's like losing a part of your family when something like this happens."
"We really want you know that we're here for you," he said. "Sometimes we like to go it on our own and think we need to do it ourselves. Please don't think that you're on your own."
Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of the Conservative Synagogue also pledged his congregation's support.
"All of us are children of God," he said, "and as children of God, part of our role is to build and build together. We know that we will together build our community and build this church for the future."
Clergy from houses of worship in neighboring Fairfield, Norwalk, Wilton and Weston also attended the vigil with similar messages of hope.
"We stand in solidarity with you," said Suzanne Wagner, interim senior pastor of Wilton Congregational Church. "We are the church. This is what it means to be a worshipping group of people, a people who believe and trust that God will bring us through all of this."
At the close of the vigil, attendees shook hands and exchanged hugs, while Weston's Norfield Congregational Church artist-in-residence David Connell played a flute version of the Thanksgiving hymn, "How Great Thou Art."
As Connell played, Paula Mikesh, head chef of Saugatuck Congregational's Thanksgiving feast, turned and looked up at the illuminated landmark steeple.
"This says great things about the community," she said of the service. "It's a horrible thing that happened, but it's bringing people together. This is a great church with great people. We're going to pull through."