By JOHN HOWELL George Tarring knew where the large Christmas wreaths would look best - on either side of stained glass window overlooking the altar. But it didn't seem right to hammer nails in the unblemished walls, especially after all the Woodbury
George Tarring knew where the large Christmas wreaths would look best – on either side of stained glass window overlooking the altar. But it didn’t seem right to hammer nails in the unblemished walls, especially after all the Woodbury Union Presbyterian has endured over the past two years.
Tarring positioned the wreaths on chairs as he and a handful of parishioners arranged for the Christmas Eve service that evening. This would be the first service since reconstruction of the church was completed in the wake of the Thanksgiving eve 2018 fire that consumed most of the sanctuary.
Under ordinary circumstances, the reopening of the church would have been a grand affair. Parishioners of St. Benedict Church, who immediately made their space available for Woodbury to hold services, would have been on the top of the list. Naturally, local officials from the councilman to state legislators and the mayor would have received invitations. An invitation would have gone out to the community and there would have been plans for musical presentations, speeches and citations.
But these are not ordinary times, and had not four cars been parked outside the church Thursday morning, there was no indication anything was in the works. Richard Deering said invitations to the first service were limited based on the square footage of the sanctuary and distancing requirements. There were 25 spaces available and parishioners needed to make reservations.
Other concerns had to be taken into consideration. There was to be no singing; those attending were separated by rows of empty chairs; masks were to be worn and people were to leave the service in an orderly fashion, starting with the back of the church.
But the service was not without spirit.
Recordings of the choir and the bell choir were played. There was nothing to stop people from humming along with the Christmas carols. And there were no rules on applauding, and hence a good deal of applause as Pastor T.J. DeMarco listed the names of parishioners who played key roles in the reconstruction project that came within 1 percent of the budget. Gary Christensen represented the church throughout the process, regularly visiting the site and providing answers as the contractors encountered issues, such as delays in the delivery of materials or substitute materials affecting the budget. Christensen received the most sustained applause.
Prior to the Christmas Eve service, Pastor DeMarco said he is excited for Woodbury to be back in its own space although there is no knowing how long it will be before restrictions on gatherings are lifted and the church can resume full in-person services. Since altering the footprint of the former church would have required zoning approvals, many features of the new building follow those of the former. The church now has a sprinkler system and handicapped accessibility has been improved, but those familiar with the old building will know where to find the stairs to the basement meeting room with its new kitchen, Sunday school rooms and the pastor’s office.
Pastor DeMarco is excited for Sunday school to resume now that the church has won a $13,000 grant from the Synod of the Northeast Presbyterian Church USA. The funds will be used for the training and equipment for the Montessori-like program called Godly Play. The program, suitable for children up to 9 years old, for example, uses a toy boat and wooden figures to tell the story of Noah’s Ark.
“These are stories of their faith,” Pastor DeMarco said. He is hopeful the school now with about six children will expand and bring young families into the church.
The next service in the new facility will be on Jan. 10.
Indeed, Woodbury has an all-new feel. Lights are bright. A high-tech panel controls audio and cameras. The custom-made cushion chairs take the place of pews. Floors are polished to a gleam and corridor carpeting adds bounce to the step.
Yet there is a reminder of Woodbury’ heritage – the cornerstone from the first church. It sits to one side of the altar stairs in a glass box bearing the date 1907. Woodbury has survived hurricanes, floods and two fires since then.