First Universalist Church is expected to be torn down this week. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)
Before the rubble at First Universalist Church in Southold is hauled away this week, the community gathered Sunday afternoon to say farewell to the burned-down building.
Pastor Jef Gamblee asked the crowd to respond with the words: “We bid the building at the bend farewell.”
The historic church, located along an arcing stretch of Main Road, was lost in a fire March 14. But while the building is no more, congregants say they believe the sense of unity the church has provided lives on.
During the portion of the service when people were asked to share their memories, Melissa Pond said the church was important to her because she never felt judged.
“I was a pretty weird kid growing up and the church was the one place where I didn’t feel weird,” she said. “It’s not the building that’s important. It’s the people.”
After the Rev. Donald McKinney made his remarks about the church, he told a reporter that he focused his comments on its windows because he would marvel at them.
“Every single time I come into that church, I think of those windows and their power to make you think that the world is with us all the time — with its goodness and all its problems,” he said. “The church, of course, is its people, but that building did more to express what people’s faith is all about than most buildings.”
The church was founded in 1835 and the building was designed by William D. Cochran. A 1989 article in The Suffolk Times credits architect Richard Lathers with designing a restoration of the church in 1907. The church steeple was restored in 1989, several years after sustaining damage in Hurricane Gloria, according to an earlier Suffolk Times article.
Church president Susi Young said First Universalist leadership is gathering information and community input about rebuilding.
“We haven’t made that decision, but that’s what we hope,” she said. “There’s a lot of different ideas and we have to listen to everybody. The community has been just wonderful to us and that’s been very gratifying.”
Pastor Jef, as he’s known, said he believes that feelings people have about the church would have stayed in their hearts and souls even if the church hadn’t burned down.
“As we look at the burned-out wreckage, Yoda comes to mind,” he said. “And a comment he might make: ‘The memories are strong with that one.’ And they are.”
Rev. Donald McKinney.
Pastor Jef Gamblee.
Rev. Peter Kelley, First Presbyterian Church of Southold.