SPENCER – As they turned their faces to the warmth of the sun, some parishioners of the First Congregational Church closed their eyes, replacing the memories of the heat from the devastating June 2 fire that destroyed their church, with new images of a parish coming together on the site once more.
The service on Sunday morning marked the first time they’ve been able to gather at 207 Main Street because in the months after the fire, the site became a construction zone with heavy equipment carrying away the remains of the 160-year-old building.
Still, as he walked through the flattened lot recently, Rev. Bruce MacLeod, discovered a window pulley and thought, “what a sign.” He found a smoke detector, untouched by the flames, in the center of the lot.
“And that is where we are,” he said. “In the midst of it.”
The basketball court where they unfolded their seats, sang hymns, and opened small packets of bread and wine is the same one where the steeple fell in flames, crashing to the ground in a fiery pillar after a lightning strike sparked the blaze.
MacLeod divided the service on Sunday into three parts, initially talking about the past and offering a sort of memorial prayer for what was lost. He then focused on the present as parishioners offered up prayers for special intentions and thanks for the blessings they’ve received.
They prayed for a man who recently came home from the hospital, a young man killed in a crash near MacLeod’s home, a parishioner who gave up his license and can no longer join them for services and for a way to rebuild.
Then he looked to the coming days, admitting that the future, while unknown, is not something the parish will navigate alone. In Saugus, the First Congregational Church knitters crafted tiny prayer shawls, replicas of the larger ones they make to cover those in need with warmth and prayers.
A note tucked into a small bag wished the recipient’s “body and soul be knit together in wholeness and health.”
While it’s been three months since the fire and life has gone on, others have not forgotten about the loss and continue to pray, MacLeod said.
“We are grateful to the church in Saugus, that they are still reaching out to us,” he said.
The first step in rebuilding came with a new little pantry in which food donations are placed for those in need. MacLeod blessed the cabinet and offerings folks carried to the service. While others are caring for them, members of the congregation were quick to return to a mission of caring for others.
After the service, Robert Rivers carried his chair back to his daughter’s truck, clutching his paper coffee cup.
“I’m going to keep this as a memento,” he said of the cup. “Because it’s from the first time we were back. It feels like home again.”
Rivers hopes the church will be rebuilt, perhaps it’ll be a more modest structure, a bit smaller.
“We don’t have to build something outstanding, Jesus knows,” he said.
A short distance away, Edward Small walked through the gravelly lot, dwarfed by the hulking stonework foundation. He marveled at the craftsmanship and recalled attending Sunday School at the church. He moved away for a short time but rejoined the church in 1979 when he moved back.
He said he is hopeful for the future of the church.
Rev. Liz Garrigan-Byerly celebrated the service with MacLeod and said it was important for her to be there. As Executive Minister for Area Conference Ministry, the Spencer church fell into her jurisdiction not long ago.
It was Garrigan-Byerly who asked parishioners to turn toward the sun, away from the vacant lot.
“Feel the sun on your face,” she said. “And know that God’s grace is like sunshine.”