Canaan Congregational Church Rises from the Ashes

On November 6, 2017, a devastating fire destroyed the 190-year-old brick Canaan Congregational Church building beyond reasonable repair. But the members of the church have been busy, holding worship services at the Canaan Firehouse on Route 295 just east of the church and making important decisions regarding the original church structure. In May 2018, the congregation voted to demolish the structure and build new. Before demolition, some lightly or undamaged items from inside the building were removed, and some have been rehomed or refinished and put into storage. The Rev. Dr. Charles Close, pastor of the church, notes: “It was a difficult and painful task to sift through the rubble, save what we could, and let go of the rest. It was as if we were letting go of an old and dear friend. It turned out to be a long but productive process. We needed to pay attention to the past before we could look toward the future.”

A building committee was formed to spearhead all the necessary steps in erecting a new church home, from working with the insurance company to interviewing architects, building engineers, and general contractors to handle demolition and rebuild. The committee has been meeting weekly since November 2017. Church Moderator Victoria Kosakowski says, “We are so blessed to have a wonderful group of dedicated and skilled church members handle the complicated and myriad tasks associated with the fire’s aftermath and the rebuild.”

“We needed to pay attention to the past before we could look toward the future”

A year ago in April, the congregation hired Ann Vivian AIA of Guillot, Vivian, Viehmann Architects (GVV) of Burlington, Vermont, to design a new building to be placed on the footprint of the old church structure. Ann Vivian not only holds degrees in Architecture and Fine Arts from Rhode Island School of Design, but also a master’s degree in Theology and the Arts from Andover Newton Theological School. She belongs to the Fellowship of Architects of the United Church of Christ and brings together a theological, artistic sensibility as well as years of practical experience. Additionally, GVV “believes that successful architecture has the power to speak and teach about identity and purpose to all who experience it in the landscape as well as to those who use it.” They have worked to “create inspiring worship spaces and architecture that speaks of a community’s active witness of the principals by which its members attempt to live their faith.”

After several meetings with the building committee and the entire congregation in “collaborative and interactive design” events to help guide the Canaan congregation in the steps to building a new sanctuary, a final church building design was agreed on. Pastor Close says, “Our purpose is to create a flexible, welcoming space that can be used, not only for worship, but for community events, movie nights, meetings and even a Wi-Fi café. We vision a safe and comfortable space where everyone can meet and share what is important to them.”

Proposed Canaan Congregational Church 2019. Courtesy of GVV Architects

The church building committee members in collaboration with the architect have also been working with “solutions engineer,” Tim Schroder of Enginuity Engineering and Design of Chatham, New York. Originally contracted for stabilizing the burned structure during the first winter, Schroder, who is a structural engineer, has been hired to perform the tasks of construction manager. As such, he has overseen the demolition and will continue working with the general contractors, local town officials, and the architect through completion of the new facility’s construction.

The church rebuild contract has been awarded to Emco Construction, an award-winning construction company, specializing in the new construction and renovation of commercial buildings. Based in Guilderland, New York, Emco has worked on other religious facilities, such as Burnt Hills Methodist Church, Congregation Temple Gates of Heaven, and St. Mary’s Church.

“A welcoming space for our community into the future, and not just for Sundays”

Groundbreaking is expected to begin May 1, with the ultimate goal of finishing the project early this coming fall. “The new facility will be not just a sanctuary, but also a community gathering space,” says Susan Bues, one of the members of the committee working on the rebuilding project. “We designed it to be a welcoming space for our community into the future, and not just for Sundays.”

Although the fire engulfed the “little red church” that November Monday, the iconic church steeple with the bell intact was saved and has been sitting securely in the churchyard. One of the next tasks of the congregation and building committee will be deciding how to use the old belfry in a memorial display that will complement the new church building. Pastor Close adds, “It is vital to the community and to the congregation that we remember those who came before us. It is only by embracing our past that we can move faithfully and intentionally into the newest chapter of our history.”