Hilltown congregation has new home 35 months after fire

Last modified: Wednesday, January 02, 2013
CUMMINGTON — After losing their church to a fire three years ago, members of the West Cummington Congregational Church have finally come home to a new building they can once again call their own. On Sunday morning, the church held its first service in the brand new building that was built on the exact footprint of the original 1839 church.

“For three years there was no West Cummington Church that you could see, unless you looked into the faces of our members. We carried it through the loss of our building,” said the church’s minister, the Rev. Stephen Philbrick.

On Sunday, parishioners walked from the Parish House where they had been holding their services while the new church was being built. Led by a small band playing “As the Saints Go Marching In,” churchgoers were in a celebratory mood as they anticipated seeing inside the new building for the first time.

Nestled into the woods, the pristine white church seemed to glow in the early morning light. Arriving on the steps of the building, roughly 100 people joined together with the church chorus in singing “Amazing Grace,” their voices rising up into the snow covered treetops that stood engulfed in a soft mist. “It’s great to have an occasion like this that really makes people want to sing,” said Music Director Penny Schultz.

Parishioners entered the building as a 1892 church bell tolled in its new bell tower. Pews were filled to capacity with people standing in the side and back aisles. Many said they were struck by the church’s elegantly simple and light-filled design. The emotion of the congregants was palpable.

“I love it!” Tracey Eller of Florence said. “It is so light and beautiful! It is wonderful to finally be able to see it,” she said.

Rising out of the ashes of the old church, the doors to the new building were salvaged from the beams of the old, and custom made by furniture maker and church member Keith Tibbetts.

Architect Bruce Wood stood in the back of the church with his wife Margaret and his 9-year-old daughter Nicola. Woods received a standing ovation from the congregation for his design of the new church. “The design started two years ago this September and the construction began that fall. It took us one year to finish,” Wood said. “The tower top was just put on a couple of days ago,” he said.

Many said they felt overwhelming relief to return to their home of worship. This feeling was echoed in Philbrick’s opening words.

“Home, home, home! Thank God almighty we are home at last,” he said before delivering a sermon on resurrection, transformation, unity and community strength, which brought tears to many an eye.

“I have been coming to this church for close to 14 years,” former Brooklyn native Catherine Sands said. “There are a lot of people here who come from different spiritual traditions and backgrounds. It has been very nice to be a part of this church,” Sands said.

Philbrick thanked all those who had a hand in creating the church, saying that carpenters, boat builders and other craftsman have given high praise to the new church. “We had in mind a 300-year building, one that is strong and welcoming,” Philbrick said. “Anyone who has been in here with a knowing eye, has been astounded by the quality of the work.”

Philbrick said that he hoped the new facility would inspire people to return to the church.

“The Parish House was a little shaggy. I think we lost some people when we had to gather there,” he said. “But there are so many people here today, that I am very optimistic that we will see a rise in our numbers.”

Deacon Daniel Dashnaw said he was humbled by the way in which the community came together, parishioners and non-church members alike.

“I think that one of the most important things that we learned from this experience is that the church is really much bigger than we thought,” Dashnaw said. “It is like there was our church, but there is also a much larger church made up of people who stepped forward and volunteered.”

The message of a unified community rang true for member Collon Black of Williamsburg who said that the church reminded him of the old New England “meetinghouse” were people came together as one community with one common goal: to support the needs of many.

“This church is definitely a testament to that,” Black said.