WESTPORT, Conn. — In the nearly two years since a massive six-alarm fire devastated Westport’s Saugatuck Congregational Church, congregants have banded together and grown as a “church without walls.” On Sunday, they will gather to celebrate the start of a new chapter, one they’ve all been waiting for — the rebuilding of their home.
This special occasion will be marked with a groundbreaking ceremony at the church, 245 Post Road E., beginning at 1 p.m.
“This is definitely a milestone,” the Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton said. “Since the fire, we’ve all been actively involved in the recovery process, and now all that work is starting to bear fruit as we prepare to put shovels in the ground. It’s very exciting to begin the physical work of rebuilding.”
Patton, who became the church’s new pastor last May, said that while the fire was detrimental, it brought the congregation closer and allowed members to look forward and plan the church’s future.
Despite not having a physical home, there have been worship services every Sunday since the fire, Patton said. Services have been held at a variety of locations, mainly Temple Israel. This has allowed the congregation to become a church without walls, she said.
“It has been a fun and meaningful experience to figure out how to be a church in different ways and places — to worship at a synagogue, Compo beach, the Seabury Center at Christ & Holy Trinity, and on our own front lawn,” Patton said. “I feel privileged to pastor this congregation at a time when, frankly, there’s a lot of energy even as people grieve the loss caused by the fire.”
While Sunday’s groundbreaking will officially mark the start of reconstruction, site preparations — including cleanup, remediation and some demolition work — began on Aug. 26, said John Walsh, chairman of the church's Building Committee. This work will continue for the next several weeks.
Actual construction is expected to begin at the end of the month and is estimated to be completed in 14 months, Walsh said. If all goes well, the church may be able to reopen in late fall 2014, he said.
The exterior of the church is to be restored to its pre-fire condition, Walsh said. This means it will look exactly the same from the Post Road as it did. Also, the basic footprint of the church will essentially remain the same, though some improvements will be made to make the building more welcoming, functional and up to code, he said.
For example, Hoskins Hall, where the church’s annual Thanksgiving and Christmas community feasts were held, will open out to the Memorial Garden. A youth room will be added on the third floor, and the area that once was the choir loft will be made into a combination music room and chapel, Walsh said. The rear entrance of the church will also be reconfigured.
The fire on Nov. 20, 2011 erupted shortly before 10 p.m. in the rear of the church and destroyed the fellowship room and choir loft, where a portion of the roof collapsed. Church offices, Hoskins Hall and Saugatuck Nursery School classrooms suffered extensive water and smoke damage. The rest of the church, including the sanctuary, sustained some degree of smoke and/or water damage.
It took about six hours for the fire to be fully extinguished. A total of 63 firefighters from six towns responded to the scene.
The cause of the blaze was never determined.