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Top Stories 2015: Fire destroys Southold’s First Universalist Church

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The historic First Universalist Church of Southold was reduced to ruins March 14 by a fast-moving blaze that drew about 150 firefighters to the Main Road property as other neighbors and passersby watched the spectacle from the road.

The fire was first noticed just before 11:30 p.m. by Southold police officer Robert Haas, who alerted firefighters. The building was unoccupied at the time and no injuries were reported. The fire is not believed to be suspicious.

Southold Fire Department Chief Peggy Killian said the fire in the wooden structure “was probably going for awhile before we were called.”

“It was already coming through the exposure on the east side,” she said the next morning. “And probably within minutes went from the inside to the outside and wrapped around the whole church.”

Then the building collapsed. Despite losing its building, the church community gathered the next morning at the Custer Institute for a special service.

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

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

The church members currently meet at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greenport while a building committee has begun the process of planning a new building on the church’s longtime property.

In the Southold edition of the “Images of America” book series, former Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming wrote that the building was erected in 1837 and 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.

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Photo: The fire at First Universalist Church of Southold. (Credit: Kathryn Zukowski, file)