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Rebirth for church destroyed by fire

Congregation breaks ground in W. Cummington

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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Exactly 18 months ago today, the Rev. Stephen Philbrick was summoned before dawn to the West Cummington Congregational Church where he has been minister for 17 years.

Philbrick turned the corner along the steep road to the site, by then lined by fire engines, when he saw the one-room clapboard building that had hugged the slope of Deer Hill since 1839, fully engulfed in flames.

“I let go of it in that instant,’’ Philbrick, 62, said by phone. “If you could have flicked a switch and turned off all the flames, the church would have been a total loss.’’

The simple pews, pitched floor, and warm natural light that spelled comfort and home for many in the tiny town north of Springfield were destroyed in a wall of fire. At the time, the church drew about 50 people every Sunday.

But yesterday, Philbrick and his congregation broke ground on a new church, sinking shovels into the bare patch that is the only remaining sign of the pain and destruction wreaked by a faulty furnace.

Philbrick said about 150 people gathered to hear songs, say prayers, and unite for an organization that some have said transcends religion in the bucolic community.

The new structure will be nearly identical to the old one, planners said. Months of meetings and a raft of input from members have produced a simple white clapboard design, with expansive windows that will let in the warm light that used to walk across the floor during services.

Much effort was made to preserve the gothic details, minimal adornment, and an interior almost bereft of religious iconography, Philbrick said.

The building will cost the congregation about $800,000, Wil Hastings, head of the fund-raising committee, said by phone. The price tag was cause for some initial sticker shock, he said, especially after a protracted effort to collect insurance yielded $480,000 - far less than the cost of the new building.

But donations have streamed in - sometimes in a flurry, others times in drips and drabs. In the last two months alone, people have pledged more than $231,000, Hastings said.

After $5,500 in promised contributions came in yesterday, the total balance left to raise is about $38,500, he said.

“The generosity of the community has been overwhelming,’’ said Hastings.

Meanwhile, the congregation has held services in a smaller space that had been used for community meetings, dinners, and other church functions, before it became the impromptu place of worship.

“It’s a building that gets used seven days a week,’’ Philbrick said of the temporary home. “And it looks like a busy, happy place - but it’s not sacred. You have to find the sacred space within you when you come in the door.’’

The difference has worn on some in the congregation, he said, as members still carry the trauma of a loved space lost.

But the groundbreaking proved an opportunity for closure, and soon enough, Philbrick said, rebirth.

The shift at the ground breaking was palpable for Hal Fales, a church deacon.

“Whenever I went up there it, was somewhat depressing. It reminded you of 18 months ago,’’ said Fales, 65, recounting the charred timber and pieces of foundation left after the fire.

“And today I didn’t get reminded of 18 months ago. It looked new. And its not going to be too long before there will be constant new things to see.’’

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.