Top: The architectural drawings for the new church, designed to echo the former sanctuary, pictured above in a 19th Century postcard.
More than eight years after a fire destroyed Southold’s historic First Universalist Church, a stately 1837 sanctuary inside the big bend in the Main Road at the western gateway to Southold, the congregation gathered at the site of their meetinghouse on July 22 for a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new church at the site.
“When we disturb the soil, we often do so for sacred purposes,” said Rev. Valerie Freseman at the groundbreaking. “Today we disturb this soil mindful not just of what will be grown here in the future, but mindful of what has flourished here in the past.”
She asked the congregation to do some “sacred imagining” of the community that will grow again on the site, and to bless those who will labor to build the church, including General Contractor Scott Edgett of North Fork Woodworking, architect Ray Calamari and Brian Davis, a retired architect who will serve as the owner’s representative in the building process, which could take as long as 15 months.
Mark Sisson, a member of the church’s rebuilding committee since just after the fire, served as the Master of Ceremonies, and he joked several times during the ceremony that the church would be finished much sooner, knowing full well how many years of work it has taken to get to this point.
“One of the principles of Unitarian Universalism is that everyone gets a voice,” he said, to a chorus of chuckles from a congregation that has entertained numerous ideas before deciding to build a new, 4,000-square-foot sanctuary whose architecture echoes the historic nature of the original building, on the original site.
Mr. Davis, the church’s owner’s representative in the building project, said the church’s history is a solid foundation to a story that will continue — and parts of the actual foundation of the original church were still buried beneath their feet. He commended the congregation, “folks with passion and conviction and dedication to their community,” for their “commitment through good times and bad.”
“The design captures the spirit of the church community, and the Southold community itself,” he added.
Mr. Sisson remembered receiving a phone call the morning after the fire, a Sunday, hearing the church had burned down, and how the Custer Institute Observatory had opened its doors to the congregation that day, and in the weeks ahead, and how the Southold Fire Department brought the church’s bell, which they’d rescued from the embers, to their service that morning.
“If there was a metaphor for what the First Universalist Church would do, it was that bell, brought to that service,” he said.
In the intervening years since the fire on March 14, 2015, the congregation has been meeting at Most Holy Trinity Church in Greenport. That church’s Reverend, Roger Joslin, joked at the groundbreaking that he has often been accused of being a “Unitarian who was addicted to the Eucharist.”
Rev. Joslin said the last time he’d been at a groundbreaking for a church, he was a young boy in Texas, and the ground was a worn out cotton field that he could barely scratch with his shovel.
“I’m confident it will be easier digging here today,” he said, adding that the First Universalist Church’s congregation had ‘answered the call,’ when they’d embarked on this mission. There are three factors at play when answering a call, he said. The task you’re embarking on must be important to you, nearly impossible to accomplish, and there must be a good chance you’ll fail.
“In declaring the good news, we disclose what we are passionate about. We expose our dependence on god,” he said. “We acknowledge what fools we all are. We are cloaked in our vulnerability. standing naked bf god and the world, yet in that helplessness we find strength, wholeheartedness and the courage to live fully in the life we were called to live.”
“We weathered the pandemic together, and we’ve become family,” he added. “And you pay rent, so it will be with great reluctance that we say goodbye to you.”
“Listen to the exhortation of the dawn! Look to this day,” said Pastor Valerie, quoting the Sanskrit writer Kalidasa, “For it is life, the very life of life. In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence. The bliss of growth, the glory of action, The splendor of beauty. For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision. But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”
The church streamed the ceremony live on Facebook — see below: