By JOHN HOWELL George Tarring has had his brush with fire. Two years ago on Thanksgiving eve, he anxiously stood outside the Woodbury Union Church, Presbyterian in Conimicut Village center as firefighters battled flames that shot through the roof. As
George Tarring has had his brush with fire. Two years ago on Thanksgiving eve, he anxiously stood outside the Woodbury Union Church, Presbyterian in Conimicut Village center as firefighters battled flames that shot through the roof. As water streamed from above, firefighters snaked hoses into the church from the back door.
Tarring wondered if anything might be saved from the burning building, especially the sets of hand bells that had cost thousands of dollars. Might they be retrieved before the flames reached them? He knew where they were and asked a firefighter if he could rescue the bells. The firefighter brought them out minutes later, their cases dusted with soot, but otherwise intact.
On Tuesday, Tarring was back in the church, this time with his head inside the giant stove that dominates the basement meeting hall. He wasn’t flirting with fire, but rather going over operational instructions with Susan Hay. The church sparkles. Light fills it. The sanctuary – the stained glass windows were saved from the fire – has custom-made chairs of oak and gray fabric in place of pews. The chairs will enable the congregation to divide the space into different areas or open it up entirely for large events such as the Christmas bazaar once this pandemic is over.
On Tuesday, crews put final touches to their work, removing stickers from windows, cleaning and touching up. The resurrection on Woodbury Union Church is nearly completed. Building and fire inspectors are scheduled to make checks today and Friday and hopefully the church will be handed a certificate of occupancy.
The church covers the same footprint, yet parishioners will discover some notable improvements. The front door now faces Beach Avenue, which makes it visible from West Shore Road. It is also wider. There’s a handicapped accessible ramp to the basement meeting room. There are two more bathrooms for a total of four. Throughout there is vastly improved lighting that is motion activated. There’s air conditioning that the church never had. Spaces have been made for the food pantry, for storage and set aside for offices and Sunday school classes. Sunday school will continue to be done virtually for the time being said Hay.
And how the church will reopen and when is uncertain because of regulations surrounding the pandemic.
As Tarring and Hay point out, they had hoped to do a community reopening, inviting the neighbors, officials, those who worked on rebuilding the church and friends from St. Benedict Church to the celebration. That’s out of the question now, but maybe someday.
While it has been trying times for Woodbury, Tarring and Hay also say new bonds and friendships have formed because of the ordeal. As the embers still smoldered, Fr. Robert Marciano, pastor of St. Kevin Church that is yoked with St. Benedict Church in Conimicut, offered to help.
Tarring said a Woodbury delegation led by Pastor T. J. DeMarco met with Fr. Marciano with the request to use the St. Benedict meeting hall in the former St. Benedict School for services.
“He said ‘no’ and that he wouldn’t allow it,” Tarring said of Fr. Marciano’s immediate response. To everyone’s surprise, Fr. Marciano said Woodbury services should be held in the St. Benedict Church sanctuary. Not only was Woodbury offered use of the church, but Tarring said Fr. Marciano was prepared to change the hours of St. Benedict masses to accommodate them. Woodbury didn’t take them up on the offer.
Those organizations hosted by Woodbury, including the AA, Boy and Girl Scouts, Disabled War Veterans and the Conimicut Village Association, were also welcomed by St. Benedict.
Hay, who held a cross that was rescued from the altar the day after the fire as a sign that Woodbury Union would return, looked up from her lesson on how to operate the church stove Tuesday. With the prospect that the building will satisfactorily pass inspections, she announced gleefully, “then we can start moving back home again.”
Gary Christensen, who oversaw the reconstruction, said “we’re kind of chopping at the bit to get in.” He said that hopefully next year the church would hold some kind of celebration. He said a virtual tour of church is nearly completed and a video will be posted on You Tube by next week.