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Southold congregation holds hope for a resurrection after fire ruins historic church

Three weeks after their historic church in Southold was destroyed in a fire, members of the First Universalist Church of Southold will gather Sunday for the Easter service at a temporary home, the nearby Custer Institute and Observatory.

Many remain in shock over the devastating blaze and find it hard to envision their beloved 178-year-old church rising from the ashes.

"I'm just glad my parents weren't alive to see it," said Julie Alexander, 84, whose family has attended the church since the 1890s. "It's really very difficult to even be able to talk about it."

The Greek Revival-style church, completed in 1837, for generations was a landmark that greeted visitors as they rounded a bend on Route 25 to enter Southold. After the fire late on the night of March 14, little remained of the white wood-frame building. Suffolk County police said they still are investigating the cause of the fire. No foul play is suspected.

"It was incredible, it was tragic, it was unbelievable, it was unreal," said Dan Durett, 64, a leader of the church.

It also was a loss architecturally, said Geoffrey K. Fleming, director of the Southold Historical Society. "It was one of the more elegant churches on the North Fork," he said, and was one of the last surviving largely unaltered products of William D. Cochran, a well-known local architect.

Some members of the small congregation, which numbers about 100 people, are taking the first tentative steps toward rebuilding. They have established a fund to collect donations.

"We haven't buried the old church," Durett said. "For many members, it's difficult to talk about the new one. We're still in the grieving process. It's very similar to losing a member of your family."

But "like everything else, we are going to rise," he added. "We know we are going to be an important part of the community, because that's our heritage."


Hope coming back to life

Sunday's Easter service "will emphasize the real message of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus: that hope does not die, it always comes back to life," Durett said. "We will resurrect our vision, repair our broken hearts, and restore to life our members and church building."

Since the blaze, the congregation has been holding services temporarily at the nearby Custer Institute -- the oldest public observatory on Long Island, established in 1927.

The church is part of the Unitarian Universalist denomination and considers itself progressive and liberal. It is open to people of any faith, as well as atheists and agnostics, and has members from Christian, Jewish and Buddhist backgrounds, Durett said. The congregation includes Latinos, African-Americans and Asians.

"It's sort of like a United Nations of religions," he said. "I don't think any other church is as religiously diverse as First Universalist, even with the small numbers."

Across Long Island, there are 10 Unitarian Universalist congregations with about 1,500 members. These, along with a church in Flushing, are members of the Long Island Area Council of Unitarian Universalist Congregations.

The Unitarian Universalists, a mid-20th century joining of two denominations with Judeo-Christian heritages, today do not adhere as a group to professed creeds, said the Rev. Jeffrey Gamblee, pastor of the Southold church. Many view the biblical account of Jesus' resurrection from the dead as more a metaphor from ancient times than fact, he said.

Gamblee said he does believe in the message of the resurrection story -- that people can rebound from terrible setbacks. He said he plans to touch on that theme during the Easter Sunday service.

"Renewal can happen after a Good Friday experience," he said. "A resurrection, a rising from the ashes, is possible, it can happen," though "not every Good Friday has a resurrection."


A widening influence

Before the fire, the church in Southold was on an upswing, with membership and programs growing. A $4,800 renovation of the organ had been completed two weeks earlier, a new floor was installed in the parish hall at a cost of $9,200, and the facility was being used for new activities, such as a Zumba class, Durett said.

Young members of the congregation had started a campaign called "Project Bus Stop" to get officials to erect shelters at bus stops in Suffolk where migrant farmworkers and others who depend upon public transportation often have to wait in the rain, snow or cold, or under the summer sun.

The church also participated in Maureen's Haven, a program in which different East End churches take turns hosting the homeless during the winter to provide food and overnight shelter.

"I'm so thankful the homeless weren't there" the night of the fire, Alexander said, noting they sleep in the basement. "It would have been horrible."

The fire happened on a Saturday night. Just hours before, many members of the congregation were at an afternoon memorial service at the church for a longtime member.

"It was so unreal, saying goodbye, see you at Sunday service at 10:30" and then getting a call that night that the church was on fire, Durett said.


Staying strong together

While some, including Alexander, are having a hard time coming to grips with the church's loss and imagining a reconstruction, others -- locally and elsewhere -- see hope.

In Bohemia, the original church of St. John Nepomucene Roman Catholic parish, built in 1885, was ravaged by fire during Holy Week in 2012.

"The Little Church," as it is known, was fully rebuilt through insurance money and donations, and today is back to functioning again as a center for the parish's youth ministry, said the pastor, the Rev. Joseph Schlafer.

"It's really been a resurrection for us," he said. The parish's main church was built in 1981 and was undamaged by the blaze.

Durett said he already sees signs of rebirth in Southold as Easter arrives. Some people have made donations, including one man who stopped by the church's parsonage, next door to the burned-out structure, and asked to whom he should make out a check.

So far, the congregation has collected about $6,000.

Even if people didn't participate in the church, "they had a connection with that building because of its location," Durett said. "It's an iconic church. It's the main visual element coming into Southold Town."

Though plans for rebuilding are very preliminary, Durett is glad the congregation has survived the tragedy intact.

"The resurrection is we're still together," he said. "We're still meeting. The church is not the building. It's the people."

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