MILO, Maine — The Rev. Michele St. Cyr stood Sunday in the pulpit of the Park Street United Methodist Church for the first time in 18 months.
“Welcome home,” the minister told her flock as they gathered to worship in the sanctuary and begin the second week of Advent.
It was the first service in the sanctuary since June 21, 2009, when a fire heavily damaged the nearly 100-year-old structure.
St. Cyr, who has been pastor of the church for nine years, said before worship began that she was “a little anxious.”
“It feels like I’m preaching for the first time,” she said.
Members of the congregation wept during her sermon. Afterward, several called the service a homecoming.
Gloria Luttrell has been attending the church on Route 11 for 62 years. Unlike her minister and others, Luttrell said she had not once peeked into the sanctuary to see how the work was going.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said Sunday after the service, “and a real blessing.”
Luttrell wept “happy tears,” but also cried for her friends who had died before the restoration was completed.
“Four members have passed away since the fire,” St. Cyr said. “The Baptist church generously let us hold their funerals there.”
The United Baptist Church is located behind the Methodist church on Pleasant Street.
Members of the Park Street Methodist Church had finished their worship on Father’s Day 2009 and left for home when a light fixture caught on fire in the roof section and damaged the area above the sanctuary.
Passing motorists noticed the fire at about 2 p.m. and reported it, according to a previously published report.
Theresa Mudgett, a church lay leader who lives in Milo, was having lunch with other members at a cafe when they heard a church in town was on fire. They rushed to the nearby church.
“When we got here, sure enough, it was our church that was on fire,” she said Sunday. “The Fire Department wasn’t here yet, so we went in to get the choir robes and the bells. I saw Michele’s mother’s Bible on the pulpit and grabbed that.”
Don Harris of Milo, a member of the Kiwanis Club, went to get a large tarp left by the man who had set up tents for the club’s annual auction the day before. Harris used the tarp to cover the pews and protect them from water damage.
“This tarp was huge,” he said Sunday. “It must have been 80 feet by 40 feet, and it covered two-thirds of our pews. God put that tarp down there to use the next day.”
St. Cyr was on her way back from the Annual Conference of United Methodist Churches in New England when the fire broke out. She was on the Maine Turnpike near Auburn when she received a call on her cell phone about the fire.
For the next few months, the congregation met in the Masonic Hall before moving into an addition to their own church built in the 1980s. For the past six months, services have been held in the fellowship hall in the church basement, St. Cyr said Sunday.
The congregation did not just rebuild the church; it restored the building, Chad Rhodes of Greenbush said Sunday. Rhodes is a contractor who oversaw and did much of the work, which totaled more than $600,000.
St. Cyr told her flock Sunday that she’d been having trouble with her sermon, which was to focus on the Gospel from Matthew of John the Baptist’s call to repentance. An e-mail from Mudgett, who e-mails Advent devotions on Fridays, ended the minister’s struggle for words.
“I am joyful, not only to see this sanctuary in its beautiful splendor, but to return to my safe haven,” Mudgett wrote. “A sanctuary is not only a holy place to worship, but it is a refuge. We have worshipped in other spaces since the fire, but I have not always found the inner pace as I do in our sanctuary. …
“Although the sanctuary will be prepared for worship on Sunday, we need to prepare ourselves as God’s sanctuary,” she concluded. “God needs to dwell within us, so that we can be a living sanctuary for him.”
The minister said those words echoed what John the Baptist told those who came to hear him preach along the River Jordan to do in preparation for the coming Christ child.
“What truly makes a church live or die is the spirit that resides within the people that make that church their home,” St. Cyr said. “If the people have been transformed into living sanctuaries for God, then the church lives, truly lives for God and the kingdom of God in the world. Then it matters not if the church is made up of two people or 2,000 or 200. It only matters if the sanctuary of the heart lives for God and the redeeming power of Jesus, which changes all things.”
On Sunday, the spirit of the congregation at the United Methodist Church on Park Street in Milo blazed in the restored sanctuary. Worshippers left feeling almost as new as their church looked.
A rededication service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 12. A video of the installation of new trusses at the church may be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMFDxwkOtfo.