WILLIAMSTOWN — History just repeated itself in Williamstown where a church that was destroyed by fire more than 170 years ago was destroyed by fire again.
Or was it?
The steeple and clock tower of United Federated Church of Williamstown are now gone and its stained-glass windows were shattered in a fire that burned from the top down late Monday night. However, the people — from those who attended the church religiously to those who used it for special occasions or simply admired its architecture — were shaken, but safe.
You could hear it in Kathy Moran’s voice as the long-time congregant described her gut-wrenching reaction to photographs of the burning church she’s belonged to for the past 75 years.
“When my son came in and showed me the pictures it was like something dropped out of my world,” said Moran, who since 1975 has been the chairwoman of a chicken-pie supper that was started in 1901 and held every year until last year’s pandemic-related pause.
“It’s always been a very important part of my life,” Moran, 85, said of a church that was literally days away from hosting its first in-person Sunday service in more than a year.
That won’t happen. At least not at that location.
“Thank God we have another church,” said Moran.
Indeed they do, and Pastor Douglas Cameron was busy with a handful of congregants readying the other church for Sunday’s in-person service.
Norma Atherton and Alvin Avery were among them.
“I’ve had better days,” said Atherton, who has been a 50-year member of the church where her children were baptized. She was still coming to grips with the fact that the building where “lots of precious memories” played out for generations was destroyed.
Like Moran, Atherton said the presence of the second church was a blessing that took at least a little of the sting out of a fire she predicted would hit some families harder than others.
“It’s not the same,” she said, noting that was particularly true for people like Moran and Milo Winters, whose wife Florence was once the long-time organist at the church.
After a moment’s reflection, Atherton embraced a this-to-will-pass approach to a fire that destroyed a building, not a church.
“It’s still the people,” she said. “We will overcome.”
It won’t be easy, according to Cameron.
“We’ve got people in the church who were born into that church and their parents went to that church,” he said.
“That are in their 80s,” Avery added.
Cameron said whether and what to rebuild would likely be the topic of a spirited conversation in coming weeks.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s going to be a grieving process.”
Town Clerk Barbara Graham put it differently.
“It sucks,” she said. “People got married there, baptized there, there were chicken-pie suppers and funerals there. It was ‘the’ church.”
Long-time Williamstown residents like Rocky Hudson remember when the church that burned in Monday night’s fire was used during the winter, while the one just two doors down was used for summer services.
Hudson lives in between the two churches — one that still had its steeple Tuesday morning and one that had its toppled by a crane amid concern it would collapse.
Hudson was in bed when he heard sirens approaching shortly after 10 p.m. and fully expected they would fade into the distance. He was wrong.
“They didn’t keep going,” Hudson said of the firetrucks, which lit up the stretch of Route 14 in front of his home and the two churches.
They had help from a blazing fire Hudson watched in real time before heading back to bed at 3 a.m.
“It was still burning,” he said.
Burning, but “under control,” according to Fire Chief William Graham, who took no pleasure in fighting the fire that gutted the church where he was married seven years ago.
“There was a lot of history in that building,” he said, nodding at what remained of a structure that was rebuilt in 1850 in the wake of a fire that destroyed its earlier edition.
Graham’s mother, Barbara, is the town clerk and he roused his father, Rodney, who is chairman of the Select Board, before 2 a.m. to obtain authorization for his safety-related decision to have a crane knock down the steeple and the tower that housed a town-owned clock.
William Graham said the fire appears to have started in the steeple above the clock tower before ripping trough the roof and spreading into the sanctuary.
Firefighters from Barre, Barre Town, Berlin, Northfield Chelsea and Roxbury joined Williamstown volunteers on the scene, while volunteers from some southern departments were occupied with a competing call in Randolph.
Graham said the fire wasn’t suspicious and a state fire investigator did not respond to the scene.
There wasn’t much to investigate. The area that was burning when firefighters arrived was dropped by a crane shortly after 5 a.m.
By then, Hudson was up again, surveying what remained of the still-smoking building.
“It was there forever,” he said.
There were no shortage of guesses about when the church was actually built.
Almost all of them were wrong.
The church was organized in 1795 and used a town-owned “meetinghouse” built on the spot where the burned out church now stands in 1803 and acquired it in 1807. The building was torn down and replaced in 1812 and rebuilt again in 1850 following a fire that partially destroyed the structure.
Avery and others relayed the story of how the sanctuary was salvaged, jacked up off the ground and incorporated into the rebuilt church.
The source of the town-owned clock, which was all mechanical and needed to be wound once a week was not known, but church members were familiar with the 1868 Nutting pipe organ that was transplanted into the church — all 896 pipes — in 1938.
Church members raised nearly $90,000 to restore the organ that was rededicated in 2005. Much of that money was raised one chicken-pie supper at a time. The organ was destroyed in the fire.
Firefighers were able to salvage a bell made by Paul Revere’s Revere Copper Co., which was one of fewer than a dozen in Vermont.
The Nutting organ, the Revere bell and the “8-day” clock were are all storied artifacts in Williamstown, as was the church.
“It was irreplaceable,” said Milan Miller, who married his wife, Cece, in the church in 1985 and has been a member ever since.
Miller said his wife has belonged to the church for more than 50 years and both were moved to tears when they looked at the shell of the building that was still standing Tuesday morning.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “We cried a little bit.”
The Monday night fire provoked a good bit of Tuesday mourning in a community that saw its streetscape altered in a jarring way. Cameron expects there will be more of that in coming weeks.
“It is a tough one,” he said, suggesting that will no doubt change the tone of Sunday’s in-person service.
“It was always just there,” Avery said of the church that meant different things to different people, but was a mainstay on what passes for Main Street in Williamstown.