When I was a little girl, I was always scared to get dressed up for church. I’d inevitably go jump in a mud puddle as soon as the sermon was over and ruin another nice dress.
But the great thing about the First Universalist Church of Southold is that the grown-ups kind of liked it when kids jumped around in mud puddles. They were always people who liked being free.
One of the best parts about being allowed up in the sanctuary with the grown-ups for sermons (this happened on some special occasions when I was small) was that you could spend the time looking up at the giant painting of Jesus on the wall behind the altar, behind the piano and the chalice where people lit candles for their loved ones in need.
In the painting, Jesus is standing on a path and there are giant boulders to his sides. Two men are crouched behind the boulders, cowering and weeping. Jesus has his hand raised and there’s a mullein plant growing out of the rock in front of him. The look on his face makes it clear the two men have no reason to be afraid. I always imagined he was about to roll a rock away from Lazarus’s tomb.
Maybe the minister was talking about Lazarus one day when I was daydreaming and watching Jesus. Maybe it really was a painting of Jesus about to roll away the rock in front of Lazarus’s tomb. All I know is that painting made me believe in the magic of faith. It made me think that anything is possible.
And today, that painting is ashes in the basement of what that church once was.
The First Universalist Church of Southold burned down last night. I’m still repeating those words to myself, in shock. The firefighters told the papers that when they arrived on the scene, the giant clear glass windows of the sanctuary were glowing orange and the fire was already “fully involved,” as firefighters say.
This afternoon, there wasn’t a speck of glass to be seen among the charred ruins of the window frames. Perhaps it was so hot the glass disintegrated. I don’t know. The fire burned so hot that it melted the vinyl siding off of the parsonage next door.
Someone had left two unopened half gallons of milk — one of whole milk and one of reduced fat milk, by the back of the church, near the kitchen door. Perhaps they’d arrived for services this morning, ready to stock the kitchen for hospitality hour, when they arrived to find their place of worship had disintegrated.
Services were held at Custer Institute this morning instead, where firefighters brought the bell from the church to grieving parishioners.
This afternoon, the parishioners who wandered around outside wept openly about the community where they’d chosen to raise their children. One man said that Weight Watchers will now need to find somewhere else to hold their meetings during the week.
It’s those little, obscure details that people remember in times of tragedy — smells, small items, things that meant something unique to them, things that will never exist again.
Parishioner Peggy Richards told me later today that a local artist, Edith Prellwitz, donated the painting behind the alter to the church in 1926.
“She declined to name or interpret it, so that everyone who looks at it is free to find his/her own meaning in the image,” she said.
It’s been a while since I was a good enough UU to go to church on a regular basis.
I remember running around the feet of grown-ups at hospitality hour, dodging the coffee and milk and crumb cake, and then racing down to the basement for another game of hide-and-seek.
I remember trying to comprehend Sunday school lessons about why Radio Flyer wagons can’t heal themselves when they are injured [they are not sentient beings].
I remember the organ pipes blaring and the nervousness of being in charge of putting change in the offertory baskets during the service. I remember singing too loud and too off-key and loving every minute of it.
I remember the way they opened their doors up to everyone for a pre-Thanksgiving feast, when I showed up at the door, a young single mother with a toddler in tow who spent the whole evening making friends with the then-aging congregation.
I remember one wild night in September of 1985, when my family had been evacuated and Hurricane Gloria was bearing down on the North Fork and Sarah Campbell, the pastor at the time, let us in to the church to weather the storm.
We spent the early part of the storm in the sanctuary, listening to the wind pound against the wooden battens that had been placed over those glass windows, terrified that they’d come shattering down onto us as we slept in the pews.
Late that night, Sarah took us into the parsonage, where we finally managed to close our eyes and sleep until the storm had passed. We walked outside to find pieces of the steeple, telephone wires, trees, and all kinds of crazy things strewn about the street. At the time, it seemed like the most devastating thing I’d ever seen.
Godspeed to all the parishioners of the First Universalist Church of Southold. I’d light a candle in the chalice for you right now, but perhaps a flame is not what you need.
Be Lazarus, be a Phoenix, be what you can still be. But you will rise again.
The First Universalist Church of Southold will meet at Custer Institute again next Sunday, at 10:30 a.m.
A fund has been established to help the church recover. You can donate online here or send a check to First Universalist Church of Southold, P.O. Box 221. Southold, NY 11971.