In regards to the cause of the fire that destroyed a significant portion of the Saugatuck Congregational Church, Lieutenant Jerry Shannon of the Westport Police Department is uncertain.
“The Westport Police is not involved with investigation of the issue, exempting the initial emergency response. A report, which we expect to receive within a month or so from the State Police, will explain the ultimate cause of the fire, and detail criminal activity, in the unlikely event that there was any,” Shannon said.
The fire, which ravaged several conference and connecting rooms within the church on the night Nov. 21, has caused the church to close indefinitely for repair. Services have since been relocated to Temple Israel, also located in Westport. The fire’s lingering impact can be felt within the halls of Staples, as well. Charlie Cross ’13, who attends Saugatuck’s services, expressed sentiment upon the issue.
“It’s been a challenge for the Church community to relocate after the fire. Our current services may take place in the Church that we’ve known for all of these years, but I think that we will emerge from this unfortunate event as an even stronger group,” Cross said.
Church representatives, including Jeff Boak, who serves as the moderator for the Church Counsel, which manages member-run boards that direct Church activities, were equally optimistic for the Church’s future in respect to the overall damage caused by the fire.
“The Church Sanctuary, which is the most significant location in our Congregation, remained intact through the course of the fire. A piano and the contents of the Deacon’s closet, which largely consisted of candlesticks, were among the items lost, but they are both much more easily replaceable than some of the other contents of the Church, and we are very thankful that the damage was confined to that area,” Boak said.
Additionally, all charity events that were scheduled for the month of December, including the Congregation’s annual Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, went on as usual, in part due to the assistance of various community groups.
“Irrespective of the fact that we are of different religious denominations, the organizations of Temple Israel and Christ and Holy Trinity Church were really the impetus towards carrying on business as usual with our feasts. While Temple Israel granted us a space to worship, Christ and Holy Trinity supplied over 300 chairs for the Thanksgiving event,” Boak said.
According to Church member and B.O.E. representative Mark Mathias, other community organizations and businesses have also temporarily offered resources to continue auxiliary Church services, including day care.
“The ‘Y’ has assumed supervision of an at least an additional 25 kids from our Church program since the fire rendered our space unusable. It’s amazing. I don’t know how they manage to do it… just like I was amazed by the goodwill of Stew Leonard’s, who replaced 30 turkeys that spoiled in the Church basement because the fire cut the power to our refrigerators,” Mathias said.
Yet, while the Church community has successfully held its services, charity events, and other functions in the aftermath of the fire, the Church’s reconstruction presents an indeterminate challenge.
“It’s impossible to tell how long it’s going to take to rebuild the area that was destroyed. It could range from one day from now, to one year… or more. I don’t intend to take a silly wild-ass guess. We have to organize contractors and construction plans, and it’s kind of a loose target at this point,” Boak said.
As of now, the Church is closed to the public. With the intent of keeping out vandals and vagrants, the Church has also hired a private security force to patrol its grounds.
“It’s a warm, enticing spot. Whether or not someone has malicious intent, we need to make sure that the area is cleared for repairs and that our current infrastructure remains intact,” Boak said.
As reconstruction gets underway, many Church members, including Mathias, believe that the manner in which the fire was handled should serve as a model for the collective response to similar unfortunate events, should they arise in the future.
“I think that we… We the Church, We Westporters, and We Citizens… will look back on this event 5, 10, or 20 years down the road and realize that we all did the right thing. It doesn’t always take a catastrophe to bring people together, but this one certainly did,” Mathias said.