For the congregation of Westport Presbyterian Church, the past four and a half years have often felt kind of like wandering in the wilderness as they tried to recover from a devastating fire.
But as people streamed into the church on Saturday for a celebratory reopening — featuring saxophone music in the sanctuary, English folk dancing in the basement and refreshments in the fellowship hall — all the hardship appeared to have been worth it.
Now, people said, the church has emerged as a lesson in faith, answered prayers and rebirth.
“It’s been a journey from trauma to wonder,” said the Rev. Scott Myers, pastor of the church for the past 22 years, who nearly despaired after the fire broke out Dec. 29, 2011. It destroyed much of the church that had stood at 201 Westport Road since 1904.
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For decades, Myers said, church members had explored the connection between spirituality, community service and the arts. Now, gazing at the glorious contemporary sanctuary embedded within the historic stone walls, he thinks people can experience that connection from the rebuilt structure itself.
Within these reborn rooms, he said, “I think you can learn the art of loving God.”
For longtime organist and choir director Marian Thomas, the prolonged rebuilding effort was truly a faith odyssey.
Despite the long and painful process, the congregation retained its deep sense of commitment and determination to remain and rebuild in the same spot, with the same community outreach.
“We are a small congregation with a big heart,” Thomas said, adding that the membership of about 80 people has grown even more cohesive and is bringing in new families.
The church remains an integral part of the Westport neighborhood and provides 12-step AA classes, a home for Westport Center for the Arts and help to groups such as Synergy Services. It also is home to Boy Scout Troop 60, the oldest troop in the city, although scoutmaster Mike Swanson said it is always looking for more boys to join.
Tris Coffin, 70, and his 102-year-old mother, Fern, attended Westport Presbyterian Church in the 1940s and 1950s but hadn’t been back since 1960. They came to Saturday’s open house because they had heard about the fire and wanted to learn about the church’s future.
“It’s just beautiful,” Tris Coffin said, marveling at how the new construction blended with the building’s historic bones. “I think it’s going to mark a new beginning.”
The blaze was attributed to combustible materials related to a contractor’s air conditioner installation. The rebuilding effort took so long in part because of the resulting litigation and because of unforeseen infrastructure challenges.
BNIM Architects and A.L. Huber general contractor were hired for the project, which cost an estimated $11 million, mostly paid for by insurance.
The blaze affected three buildings that make up the church.
The fire and several feet of water from the firefighters’ hoses heavily damaged the main building, which included the sanctuary, chapel, second floor and basement.
The stone work remained intact and was incorporated in the redesign. But modern codes required that a steel frame be built inside to support the flooring and walls.
The new sanctuary is a modern church “delicately inserted into the historic stone walls,” said BNIM architect Erik Heitman. One emphasis was sustainable and environmentally progressive design.
Pinewood and all but one of the church’s dozens of gorgeous stained glass windows were spared and creatively reused in the new building, which has a new entryway much closer to Westport Road.
The second building, grafted onto the church’s east side in 1916, was destroyed and had to be completely reconstructed. It has a new storefront that is much more welcoming and accessible to Westport Road than before and is available for use by community and neighborhood groups.
Before the fire, the east building housed Westport Cooperative Services, an umbrella organization that provided Meals on Wheels and other services. Those programs moved to other venues, but a large second-story space is now available for a new nonprofit to occupy.
The third building, at the back of the church, housed the Willow Woods day care center. It was slightly damaged by fire but reopened soon afterward. It also got some upgrades, and the day care center is still going strong.