BANGOR, Maine — The Rev. Ashley Smith had been the minister of the First Universalist Church just five weeks when the Great Fire broke out.
Seeing the flames heading toward the Park Street house of worship, the minister rushed from his home on French Street to the church. He took the large Bible from the sanctuary and buried it in his backyard on April 30, 1911.
The church was the first of seven in the Queen City to go up in flames, according to a history prepared by Sue McKay, chairwoman of the church council. The parsonage where Smith lived and his 1,200-volume library were destroyed in the conflagration. The Bible survived and was returned to the church when it was rebuilt and dedicated on June 2, 1913.
One hundred years later to the day, the church, now the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, will be rededicated. In anticipation of the centennial, the original entrance, called the narthex, has been restored.
“This rededication is also a rededication of our purpose as a liberal religious community,” the Rev. Becky Gunn, minister of the church, said last week.
The original entrance, which is not handicap accessible, faces what is now Bangor City Hall. Before the fire, a park was on that parcel of land, Gunn said. After the fire, the post office was relocated to the park.
“Horse-drawn carriages would stop by the front door to drop off worshippers,” the minister said. “They would be hitched along Center Street until after services.”
After the fire, worship services were held at the Bijou and Nickel Theaters and the Unitarian Church, now the Brick Church, on Union Street. Smith was instrumental, according to McKay’s research, in securing a $15,000 loan, which was repaid in just six years, and making the rebuilding of the church a symbol of the revitalization of the city.
“The original reconstruction plan included using the existing four walls of the church,” McKay wrote, “but the [Bangor] Independent article tells us: ‘In July, (1911) however, a fierce tornado or wind storm swept down the Kenduskeag valley and blew down the two side walls and the rear wall was dynamited and the work begun all over again with only the front available for use.’”
The front wall of the church still is the original wall. The cornerstone of the first structure was laid in 1860, McKay said. The main differences between the two structures was the first had two spires, which were not rebuilt, and the stained-glass windows installed in 1913. The original building had plain windows.
Since 1913, the pews in the sanctuary have been reconfigured, but no major renovations were undertaken until the recent sprucing up of the narthex. In 1924, the Dorothy Memorial Hall, an addition behind the main structure, was built in memory of Smith’s daughter.
The First Universalist Church and the Unitarian Church merged in 1995 to become the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. The Unitarians sold their building and began worshipping at the Park Street church.
“We are a public presence in a trouble world,” Gunn wrote in remarks to be presented Sunday. “We offer our beautiful sanctuary as a place of worship for whatever, whomever, represents the holy in our lives. We live our faith within and outside of the building by doing social justice work in the Greater Bangor area. We welcome all into our halls to share the opportunity to probe the answers to life’s questions.”
The rededication will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, 120 Park St. For information, call 947-7009.