SAFETY CONCERNS thwarted members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick’s hopes of ringing the congregation’s historic bell one more time after a June 6 fire damaged the church at the corner of Pleasant and Middle streets. The bell will be removed from the steeple before demolition of the damaged building begins in a few weeks. The congregation intends to build a new church at the same site.

SAFETY CONCERNS thwarted members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick’s hopes of ringing the congregation’s historic bell one more time after a June 6 fire damaged the church at the corner of Pleasant and Middle streets. The bell will be removed from the steeple before demolition of the damaged building begins in a few weeks. The congregation intends to build a new church at the same site.

BRUNSWICK

ABOVE IS THE MASON STREET CHURCH as it appeared from Maine Street, looking toward Topsham, circa 1880. In 1846, John L. Swift, a Brunswick Universalist, built the church on top of the block of stores he was constructing on Maine Street. The photo shows the former (and first) Universalist Meeting House, as it appeared in the earlier 1900s.

ABOVE IS THE MASON STREET CHURCH as it appeared from Maine Street, looking toward Topsham, circa 1880. In 1846, John L. Swift, a Brunswick Universalist, built the church on top of the block of stores he was constructing on Maine Street. The photo shows the former (and first) Universalist Meeting House, as it appeared in the earlier 1900s.

The congregation at Brunswick’s Unitarian Universalist Church had hoped to hear the church’s historic bell ring one last time. But a fire that tore through the building in June makes that a dangerous proposition.

 

 

Congregants like Ellie Swanson, who has been a parishioner at the church for around 50 years, hoped to hear the bell during an annual holiday fair Saturday, but concerns about structural integrity of the building make ringing the bell unsafe, the Rev. Sylvia Stocker said Thursday.

On Wednesday night, the church’s recovery team decided that the bell will make a safer, silent descent.

Still, the congregation has plans for the storied bell’s legacy to live on. After all, the June fire is not the first that bell has endured.

The Rev. James “ Brad” Mitchell, pastor at the church from 1986 to 2005, said Wednesday at offices behind the charred church that a fire in 1884 brought that same bell crashing through the steeple and roof of a previous church at the southeast corner of Maine and Mason streets.

An Oct. 10, 1884, article in the Brunswick Telegraph describes the blaze.

“ The spire of the Mason Street church was all ablaze apparently from the bell deck to the vane, the flames flashing and flickering at intervals so that every timber and cross-tie stood out in bold outlines for seconds at a time, the framing and finishing work having been already burned.”

That fire, despite a heavy October downpour, whipped through the then 40-year-old church and weakened the steeple containing the bell, which “ burned and finally went over.”

The fall left the bell “cracked in two or three places.”

Legend has it, Mitchell said, that the bell was recast at the Paul Revere Foundry in Boston’s North End.

According to the website of the Paul Revere House, the foundry cast its last bells in 1828.

“I’m not sure of that, but that’s the legend,” Mitchell said.

True or not, the local legend of the bell continued when it returned, cast slightly smaller than before, to be placed in a new church building erected in 1885 at the corner of Pleasant and Middle streets.

Before the fire- damaged structure is razed during the next few weeks, Stocker said the bell will be removed and await a home in a new church the congregation plans to build on the site.

And while the bell will not ring Saturday, Stocker said the church will hold a “leavetaking” ceremony at 1 p.m., where congregants and the public is invited to bring bells to ring in anticipation of the bell ringing again in the new church.

A part of Brunswick

Following the three-alarm fire this summer, Stocker said she felt a “palpable connection to that bell and its history.”

Stocker said she was hit by “just how moving that is — that there is this link to the people of the past” at the current church and the Maine Street church built in the 1840s.

“And now we get to take it to our new church with all of those connections,” Stocker said.

In earlier times, Mitchell said, the bell served admirably as timekeeper not only for the church but for all of downtown Brunswick.

With Maine Street bookended by the First Parish Church near Bowdoin College and the Universalist church at the intersection with Mason Street, Mitchell said that the Universalist church’s bell and clock tower would sound the start of the business day downtown.

The Brunswick Telegraph article also details the loss.

“… everybody of course misses the old town clock, and the ‘ sound of the churchgoing bell’ familiar to the people of regular nine o’clock habits will be heard no more.”

The former clocks adorning the Maine Street steeple are now with the Pejepscot Historical Society, Mitchell said.

Recovery

In coming weeks, Stocker said crews from Habitat for Humanity will begin salvaging parts of the church before demolition work begins soon thereafter.

Stocker said a date for demolition has not yet been set.

However, the congregation, which makes its decisions by a vote of members, has begun to discuss what plans for a new church might look like.

While an official decision has not been reached, parishioner Swanson said that the congregation seemed in agreement about building a one-story church in the interest of making it more accessible to people with physical disabilities.

Stocker said that the church’s recovery team will try to salvage as much of the old structure as it can, including stained glass windows that endured the blaze.

Stocker said the church plans to continue working with the Lewiston- based architecture firm Smith, Reuter and Lull.

On Sundays since the fire, the congregation first met for worship in the Morrell Meeting Room at nearby Curtis Memorial Library before relocating to the Minnie Brown Center in Bath, owned by the Temple Beth Israel.

In a strange twist of fate, Stocker said that from around 1840 to 1960 the property now occupied by the Minnie Brown Center housed Bath’s Universalist church.

“ So, we’re in some ways feeling as though we’re on home ground,” Stocker said.

Through the turmoil of losing the church building, Stocker said the congregation has been growing.

Another artifact

Immediately after the June 6 fire, Stocker said her mind turned to another artifact: a Bible given to Brunswick’s Unitarian Society, inscribed by writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Sometime after 1 a.m. outside of the burning church, Stocker was standing with Brunswick firefighters, asking if crews had yet made it to the church’s sanctuary.

They had not, Stocker said, but moments later she heard firefighters’ arrival in the sanctuary over the radio.

To firefighters in the smokefilled sanctuary, Stocker began describing the book, which was encased above a marbletopped mahogany table.

Moments later, Stocker said a firefighter came running toward her, a soggy hymnal in hand, and said “‘Here’s the Bible!’”

“I was afraid that they had spent all of this time trying to find this hymn book that could be replaced for $25 as opposed to the Bible that couldn’t be replaced for any portion of money,” Stocker said.

But just down the sidewalk, Stocker said, a group of firefighters had emerged with the Bible and its attendant marble topped table.

The book, Stocker said, is now being held in Bowdoin College’s Special Collections Department, in the Hawthorne- Longfellow Library.

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Saturday fair

The Unitarian Universalist Church will hold its annual holiday fair Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The fair features a sale of around 65 holiday wreaths and 25 holiday centerpieces. This year’s fair will be scaled down after a June fire totaled the church, former minister James “Brad” Mitchell said, but church members wanted to show that the congregation is “still alive and well and rising from the ashes, like a phoenix.”


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