Community picking up the pieces of fire-damaged church

03/15/2015 1:56 PM |
Pastor Jef Gamblee of First Universalist Church in Southold, with church member Peter Young of Southold, load the church sign into a pickup truck before driving it to a service at  Custer Institute. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Pastor Jef Gamblee of First Universalist Church of Southold, with church member Peter Young of Southold, load the church sign into a pickup truck before driving it to a service at Custer Institute. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Minutes into the First Universalist Church service in Southold Sunday morning, a speaker was briefly interrupted by a voice at the back of the room.

“Excuse us,” the gentleman said. “We have your bell. We thought you’d want it here.”

The voice was that of Southold fireman Brian Grattan, who had driven along with fellow firefighter Ed Boyd the 1.4 miles from the church to the Custer Institute, where members of the congregation gathered for a service.

The charred bell was located after the Main Road church was destroyed in a fire the night before and its relocation to Main Bayview Road was symbolic of how First Universalist’s members were rising from the ashes themselves. 

“I must have missed the day when they teach you in seminary what to do when your church burns down,” Pastor Jef Gamblee told the congregation at the start of the service. “We’re going to have to figure this out together.

“We are gathering this morning to grieve, to hurt, to speak this tragedy into reality.”

Fire department volunteers Brian Grattan and Ed Boyd  deliver the charred bell from Southold Universalist Church to the service Sunday.

Fire department volunteers Brian Grattan and Ed Boyd deliver the charred bell from First Universalist Church to the service Sunday. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

After the minister’s remarks, members of the church stood up, one by one, and spoke what was on their mind. For some, they shared their heartbreak. Others told tales of happier times spent in the 19th Century building.

They all tried to make sense of the loss of their home away from home, an event many of them described as a death in the family.

Dan Durett of Greenport said that as he drove to the church Sunday morning, he was stopped by fire police that wouldn’t allow him to go any closer as they continued to control the fire. After explaining that he was a church trustee, he was allowed to approach the scene.

“It looks like a bomb hit it,” he said, adding that the ashy remains reminded him of the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. He said it was appropriate that the church gathered at the Custer Institute Sunday instead.

“This place looks at the stars,” he said of the observatory. “And everyone of you are the stars in my life.”

Longtime church member and fellow trustee John Wissemann recalled the first time he ever entered the church, roughly 80 years ago. The 90-year-old Southold native said even before then he’d take notice of the church as he passed by on his bicycle as a young boy.

“I loved that church,” he said.

Firefighters continued to battle the blaze Sunday morning. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Firefighters continued to battle the blaze Sunday morning. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Several speakers emphasized that the true existence of the church is the people, not the structure where the individuals meet each week.

Thornton Smith of Greenport said church leadership will likely form several committees to study different aspects of rebuilding the church and decide on a best course of action.

Many area churches have already offered help and space as needed, as has the Southold Public Library.

Mark Sisson of Mattituck said the fire reminds him of when the North Fork Community Theater burned down.

“We came back as strong as ever,” he said. “This church is as strong as North Fork theater. It will come back stronger.”

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