Rebuilding the UU Church of Brunswick: “It’s a spirit, and a mission and a dream”

Rev. Sylvia Stocker stands in a circle of bricks on the vacant lot where her church used to stand. The bricks are all that's left of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Brunswick but her congregation will soon get a new building.
Rev. Sylvia Stocker stands in a circle of bricks on the vacant lot where her church used to stand. The bricks are all that's left of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Brunswick but her congregation will soon get a new building.
Posted April 03, 2013, at 4:27 p.m.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick was lost to a fire the night of June 6, 2011.
Courtesy Photo
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick was lost to a fire the night of June 6, 2011.

BRUNSWICK — The Rev. Sylvia Stocker has no fear that, despite a very different exterior, the heart of the new Unitarian Universalist church, when it’s completed, will be exactly the same as the the church that burned nearly two years ago.

Or perhaps, she said, even stronger.

“From the outside, it looks very different,” Stocker, who has been minister since 2007, said of the current plans. “It doesn’t look at all like the old church.”

Plans for the single-story, shingled structure await approval by the entire, 185-person membership, Stocker said.

Inside the proposed building, though, Stocker said members will find many things that remain the same long after the blaze destroyed their beloved church.

Michael Heath stood at the corner of Middle and Pleasant streets the night of June 6, 2011, and watched the flames consume the building. The sight, he said, was “surreal.”

“When the building burned, everybody grieved,” Stocker said. “It’s home. It’s like losing your home.”

For days, church and other community members walked by the cordoned off remains, staring at the shattered stained-glass windows in amazement. Not long after, the church held a flower ceremony, littering the old church steps with multicolored blooms. Another service took place in December, when the church building was razed.

But a year after the fire, the church announced a successful capital campaign, and celebrated with another flower service at the building site.

According to plans, the new $1.8 million church will be a single-story, 8,652-square-foot shingled building at the site of the previous church.

Initial plans for a more conventional church came in high, with the lowest at just short of $2.5 million, Stocker said.

The building committee then considered rebuilding on church property on Gurnet Road.

They also considered a new building that connected the Pennell House to a new church, but found code issues would add dramatically to the costs — and so they planned to raze the Pennell House.

Heath said building committee members have “put a lot of energy, thought and care into decisions” about the new building, and so far have heard positive reactions.

“I think everybody is going to have a different opinion,” he said. “Maybe that’s partly because of who we are, but I think … most everybody has the approach that … no one person is going to get the church of their dreams, but we as a congregation will get the church of our dreams.”

Much will be different: The church bell will still be above the entrance — but that entrance is slated for Middle Street instead of Pleasant.

And on the facade that faces Pleasant Street, a long, tall window will “suggest that tower of light,” Stocker said. “It is quite compelling. That window will bring light into the sanctuary.”

And a guitar crafted by luthier Carter Ruff made from undamaged pews will replace the lost pipe organ.

But much of what members remember and hold dear will remain. The sanctuary will still be on the Pleasant Street side. And the Longfellow Bible, donated to the church back when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a member, will return to the UU church after a stay at Bowdoin College.

Most importantly, Stocker said, the congregation’s “spirit and mission” will remain.

“Our congregation has a much clearer sense of what it means to be a community and what it means to hold together, because we don’t have a place anymore,” she said. “It isn’t a building that’s holding us together, it’s a spirit, and a mission and a dream. It’s who we are and what we gather together to do in the world … I think our community is incredibly strong right now. I think we know what it is to be a community of people that are gathered around a mission and a dream.”

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