UNITY — Blotches of soot can be seen above the doorways to the Unity Union Church, but it is the rear of the building that sustained considerably more damage as the result of an arson four days before Christmas in 2020.

The fire appeared to have started in the basement of the church. No one was hurt, but the smoke and fire damage to the building was extensive enough that the interior needed to be gutted.

After a year and a half, and more than $500,000 in repairs, the church at 13 Depot St. is on track to reopen for a Sunday service on Sept. 11.

It was originally scheduled to reopen last month but there was a delay in receiving building supplies so the reopening was pushed back.

This new chapter for the church, originally built in 1841, restores a “strong center in the community,” according to church trustee Bill Russell.

But that next chapter has come with some difficulty. The church was previously the Unity United Methodist Church, but it has severed ties with the Methodist church because the fees were too much for a small congregation and also due to a dispute over what to do with the building after the fire, Russell explained.


He said the General Conference of The United Methodist Church had suggested the church be closed or to donate it to a nonprofit. But its members wanted to rebuild and reopen.

The disagreement led to a dispute over who actually owns the property. Russell said it was determined the property belongs to the Unity Union Church Association. He said the association has been waiting a few months for an official letter of separation from the Methodist conference.

In the meantime, Russell recalls how the Unity congregation was lucky in one regard when the fire happened. It broke out on a Monday, which happened to be the day when members of the Fire Department gathered for a weekly meeting. The fire station is about a mile from the church and firefighters responded within minutes.

“They did an excellent job knocking down the fire,” Russell said. 

A spokesperson for Maine State Police, Shannon Moss, confirmed the fire was ruled an arson by the Maine Office of State Fire Marshal.

“It’s still an active investigation, so no additional information can be released at this time,” she said in an email.


Not everything was destroyed in the fire. Despite being 15 feet from the flames, one of the church’s historic stained glass windows remained undamaged, although the window needed to be professionally cleaned. Other stained glass windows also remained intact, and firefighters were able to save a 150-year-old Bible, which sustained minor water damage. A baby grand piano was salvaged as well but requires extensive work to become functional again.

Ezra Hawkins, right, and Bill Russell, a trustee for the Unity Union Church in Unity, move scaffolding June 28 to reveal original stained glass windows in the sanctuary of the church. The church’s original stained glass windows made it through a December 2020 fire, but the building sustained heavy damage. Repairs have been ongoing and a formal reopening is scheduled for September. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Russell’s attention is focused on restoring the church so the congregation can return.

“Once they get flooring in, they can put the kitchen back in,” he said. “The whole church had been gutted.”

Expenses are closing in on $600,000, but the final cost for restoring the church remains unclear as the trustees are still waiting to hear back on some bid estimates.

With some advertising on television, they were able to raise money to support the restoration project. Other churches have made donations, including a couple of pews.

“So many people come up to me and shared their personal connections to the church,” Russell said. “We’re a strong congregation, we want to keep the church going and viable.”

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