CONWAY — Television stations from across the state had camped out in front of the ravaged 19th-century church, which had just taken a beating by a once-in-a-lifetime tornado.
Speaking to one of the TV crews was a nearly 90-year-old congregant. Crying in front of the camera, she said she felt like she had lost a best friend.
“That’s heartbreaking,” remarked the United Church of Conway’s pastor, the Rev. Candice M. Ashenden.
“You know they say, and I think it’s true, when you lose a spouse, it takes a year of grieving,” Ashenden said.
In the 15 months since the February 2017 tornado tore through Pumpkin Hollow at 80 to 110 mph, church members .
The church, first built in 1841 and later rebuilt in 1885 after a fire burned it, will be leveled, likely in late July, as a part of the nearly $1.5 million settlement with the insurance company on the building that is beyond repair, including cracks to its foundation, threats of the roof folding within and the separation of the bell tower from the building itself.
Between paying back the $100,000 of Community Preservation Act funds it had received from the town for historic restoration and the costs of stabilizing the building after the storm, Ashenden said the church will be left with about $1 million to build a new church, likely at the same site, although that’s still up for consideration.
“As much as we’ve been frustrated by how long it took to get to a settlement, it’s really helped us, and helped me to move the congregation through this time because we’ve had time — we’ve had time to grieve, we’ve had time to accept and we’ve had time to begin dreaming again,” Ashenden said. “If it had come down right away, the loss would’ve been unbearable for many.”
And if fate has anything to do with the timing, the church will celebrate its 250th anniversary this summer as a congregation, a congregation that has seen three places of worship, plus more recently, a renovation in 2014, which had displaced worshippers for three years at the time.
“Amazingly,” she said, the congregation feels “like God prepared us for all of it, because literally when it happened, we had a contractor we knew and liked, and an architect we knew and liked,” Ashenden said.
The timeline on a new building has yet to be determined, although in all likelihood, it could be another couple of years before a grand opening of a new church, Ashenden said.
In the meantime, there are some key components to a future church building that the leader of the congregants has in mind.
The church plans on saving some of the small stained glass windows, which still appear to be in good shape, and possibly use them as a part of the ceiling or upper structure of the new church.
The overall structure will be more self-contained and sustainable as well. Ashenden said, “I know the theory behind the steeple and its reaching toward God, but we hope to have a more open feeling to it.” The church plans on working with Rick Katsanos of the H/AI Architecture in Northampton, the same architect from the recent renovations.
Ideally, the future church will be more accessible, contained to one main level. It will also potentially include a multi-purpose room, which could be used for functions like dinners and parties.
“To be the church, you don’t need a building per se, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to say the church moves forward,” Ashenden said. “Nothing can take away our desire to bring God into the community. We’ll be set back perhaps, but we’re not going to be stopped by an outside force.”
It’s small congregation, but a resilient one, she said.
“They’re people of deep faith, but real caring, but they’re also ‘if this is the way it is, then how are we going to work with it?’” Ashenden said. “That sort of can-do attitude has gotten them far and will continue to get us far.”
It’s been particularly difficult for some, like the minister, who were part of the building committee during the 2014 renovations. While sitting on the steps of the church Tuesday, Ashenden recalled a few years ago when every wall inside was painted.
“Seeing a wall that you chose the color, you worked for hours with a group of folks to repaint, literally cracked and split is more personally devastating than ‘just a building,’ ” she said. “If somebody had said you’ll be in this limbo place for a year and a half, I think many of us would have wanted to given up.”
Yet Ashenden knows how much it means to the congregants, particularly the older members. The church building has been “a part of the entire lives of some of our church members, and that’s a different kind of loss.”
“It matters most to me that things move quickly from here on, because a lot of these older folks for whom this has been home forever, I want them to see that we really are going to continue,” Ashenden said.
“And yet the whole thing is surreal,” she continued. “I can be just as practical as the next person, but we will all stand here and cry as it comes down, even though we’re ready to move forward and I truly believe that. It’s the grieving one more time.”
You can reach Joshua Solomon at:
413-772-0261, ext. 264