The steeple may be gone, but this church is unbroken

Members of a family affected by the tornado picked up food supplies yesterday at the First Church of Monson. Members of a family affected by the tornado picked up food supplies yesterday at the First Church of Monson. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
By Laura J. Nelson
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2011

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MONSON — The Rev. Bob Marrone raised the loaf of communion bread toward the hole in his church where the steeple had stood.

“This is my body, given for you. Do this, for the remembrance of me,’’ he said, before the wail of a siren punctuated the beginning of communion, jolting the congregation back to the chaotic reality outside the First Church of Monson Congregational.

During the first Sunday service since three tornadoes ravaged central and western Massachusetts, worshipers including volunteers and veteran congregation members packed the nave to hear a message of hope and community.

“Any time there is a disaster, even people of faith have questions,’’ Marrone said. “Why did this happen? Where was God?’’

Since Wednesday, volunteers have used the church as a relief hub, keeping it open round-the-clock to provide free food, clothing, and guidance. For two hours yesterday, the church also gave the weary a quiet place to relax, reflect, and be thankful.

“Here, we find community, support, catharsis,’’ longtime church member Nancy Zurawka said. “In a way, this church is our family.’’

A blue tarpaulin taped across a back corner of the church formed the backdrop for the serene service. Wednesday’s storms spat the wreckage of the majestic white steeple onto the church’s sloping front lawn. The rest of the building, which has stood adjacent to Monson’s Main Street since 1873, was otherwise unscathed.

The hymns, psalm, sermon, reading, and children’s message were all geared toward hope, community, and peace of mind, Marrone said.

Church member Janice Muldrew dabbed tears during the sermon, when Marrone asked the adults in the congregation to share stories of God, hope, and unexpected miracles. And they did: The church basement brimming with donated food. A volunteer who found and returned a neighbor’s life savings of $1,000. A 10-year-old who lost everything, arriving at the church at the same time as a woman carrying a bag of clothes in his size.

The volunteers at the church will see part of their workload lightened soon: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross, and other disaster relief organizations have moved their operations to the church to create a more unified relief center, Marrone said.

Today, assessment teams are expected to begin visiting the hardest hit of the 19 cities and towns affected by the tornadoes, to determine if those areas meet the threshold for federal disaster relief funding, said Peter Judge, a Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman.

To qualify for the funding, damages to public property must reach at least $8.3 million, Judge said. He said there is no fixed minimum for damages to private homes. The federal government considers many factors for homes, including the number of damaged houses, schools closed, and people forced to live in temporary shelters.

Judge said the state agency hopes to have sufficient data for a formal funding application in the next few days. A response from the federal government could come days after the governor sends his request letter to Washington, he said.

“We’ll be out there as long as it takes to meet the [damage] numbers we think are out there,’’ Judge said. He declined to provide an estimate of the expected damages.

In Monson, the tornadoes severely damaged at least 77 buildings, creating enough wreckage to draw gawkers from “all of creation’’ into severe traffic jams on Main Street yesterday, Monson Police Department dispatcher Rosalie Decaro said.

The police are urging residents to only drive on their home street and keep others clear for work trucks and crews.

In the next weeks, the congregation will begin focusing on the long-term issues: Where will those without homes live? What about the steeple?

“I’m confident that we will see bold new things that will come out of this,’’ Marrone said.

The church plans to restore the historic steeple’s clock face, but much of the wood is unusable. He hopes they can use those shattered spars to build a memorial cross or Christmas manger for the church.

The congregation continues to reach out to other affected communities, including Springfield, and still assists with its normal charities.

A handful of church volunteers, including Carol Mullen, skipped yesterday’s service to prepare a barbecue on the church’s front steps to feed the work crews hauling tree trunks and fixing downed power lines.

“I think God will understand,’’ Mullen said. “Sometimes, things are more important than church.’’

The Quaboag Highlanders Pipes and Drums, a troop of locals with drums, bagpipes, and kilts, filed to the front to play a tribute, bathed in the golden glow of 10 unshattered stained-glass windows.

For a moment, a soaring rendition of “Amazing Grace’’ drowned out the hungry growls of chainsaws and tractors.

As the last notes reverberated, the congregation filed out, leaving the calm of the nave for the chaos outside.

Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Laura J. Nelson can be reached at