Category: News

In Canaan, New York, A Community Rallies

Sharon Smullen, Berkshire Eagle correspondent, also calls Columbia County, NY home visited the Canaan Congregational Church to follow up on the church community after the devastating fire of November 6. Here is Smullen’s story in its entirety:


CANAAN, N.Y. — Here on a Sunday morning, on Route 295 just west of Queechy Lake, cars fill the parking lot around the yellow firehouse of the Canaan Protective Fire Company.

The sight is typical of one of the firefighters’ famed fundraisers, the “Belly Bustin’ Breakfasts,” but the aroma of bacon and pancakes is notably absent.

Instead, the volunteers are feeding souls, not stomachs. Inside the firehouse, in the meeting room, where yellow caution tape is the garland of a Christmas tree, two dozen people sit in a circle, heads bowed in quiet reflection. On a small folding table, an evergreen wreath encircles five advent candles. A well-rehearsed choir of six sings beside a portable keyboard, voices raised in praise.

Members of the Canaan Congregational Church worship at the Canaan Fire House. Photo by Gillian Jones for the Berkshire Eagle.

On Nov. 6, the 1829 neoclassical red brick building that was the Canaan Congregational Church succumbed to fire, leaving worshippers without a spiritual home. But as they have discovered, a crisis brings a community closer together, and even a firehouse can serve as a sacred sanctuary.

That fateful Monday, the call came in just after 5 a.m., said the Rev. Dr. Charles Close who, in 2015, after 36 years of full-time ministering, left a congregation of 360 for this part-time parish of 43.

A neighbor smelled smoke, and, through a window, saw the old church was on fire.

Arriving quickly on the scene, Canaan Fire Chief Bill Wallace found smoke pouring out the front doors and a fiery glow inside. The blaze started in a foyer ceiling light fixture, it appears, before taking hold of the attic space and bell tower above.

From the church’s structural timber to the wood finishes, “everything was fuel,” Wallace said. It didn’t help that the attic space was filled with flammable mouse nests and holiday decorations, including a wooden creche scene.

The mighty 17-by-9-inch timbers, which had been drying there for nearly 200 years, “went up very nicely,” added Close.

Flames traveled up a crack in the southeast corner support and hollowed the whole thing out. It was gone, he said. Luckily, it didn’t fall down.

As the tower was enclosed and inaccessible, fire crews broke in through the roof and eaves, removing bricks and fascia boards. With no trapped lives in peril, Wallace didn’t jeopardize firefighters by sending them inside.

“The fear was the big heavy bell on top of the tower,” he said. “If it had been compromised, we didn’t want people under it.”

Canaan has no ladder truck, so the nearby Red Rock and East Chatham fire departments sent theirs to help fight the blaze. Thanks to a mutual aid agreement, all three fire companies plus Lebanon Valley were dispatched automatically to the fire call.

“We work together very closely,” Wallace said.

With no municipal fire hydrants, Wallace triggered a battalion tanker response, summoning equipment from Niverville, Chatham and Spencertown to pump water from nearby ponds and keep two, 2,000-gallon portable storage pools filled at the fire site.

In all, 10 communities from New York and neighboring Richmond, Mass., responded with fire trucks, ambulances and support vehicles. Wallace estimated more than 100 firefighters tackled the blaze. All were volunteers, since Columbia County has no paid fire departments.

It took six hours to completely extinguish the fire.

The church’s front end was burned out, Close said. Residents of the green house next door were evacuated to a motel, for fear the compromised bell tower might collapse on their home.

With $1 million in coverage, the insurance company will likely declare a total loss, Close explained. Some artifacts and furniture were saved, but most of the church, including the pews and a 100-year-old Steinway piano, sustained major smoke and water damage.

While the tower was severely burned, “the bell is still up there,” he said, “and we might be able to save the belfry.” For now, steel beams replace the burnt wooden supports “until we decide what to do with it.”

Following the fire, a meeting was held at Canaan Town Hall.

“It was our church family and people from the community and from my denomination,” said Close. “We talked about our feelings. It was cathartic for a lot of people. We’re Yankees, we don’t pour out our emotions — and some people couldn’t talk because they would cry.”

Members of the Canaan Fire Department also met and voted to offer the use of their firehouse for the congregation’s Sunday services for as long as was needed.

“It was unanimous; everyone in the fire department agreed,” Wallace said.

The offer was delivered during the Town Hall gathering.

“And we took it immediately,” said Close. “In a crisis, you take care of immediate stuff first, then you transition into the long haul.”

Fire destroyed the Canaan Congregational Church in Canaan, N.Y., in November. The congregation has been meeting for Sunday services in the Canaan Protective Fire Company since the fire. This Sunday was no exception.

The congregation is still coming to terms with the loss of their beloved church.

For Dorothy Dooren, a 40-year member, the church was an oasis, somewhere to “find peace in a troubled world,” she said. “But the church is people, not a building.”

“It was shocking, a severe loss,” said Patricia Wallender, who joined the church a decade ago while living in New Lebanon, N.Y., and who now commutes from Pittsfield, Mass.

Still, she said, “it seems like we’re closer now than we were before.”

Terese Platten has attended the church for 20 years.

“Our daughter was baptized there,” Platten said. “We’re a small congregation and a very close-knit community. It was like looking at your home burning.”

Driving by the building makes her sad, Platten said. She added, “But a lot of us are also looking at the opportunities, too.”

Following the Sunday service, Close reported the bell tower has been stabilized, debris-filled dumpsters removed and a fence installed, “so we’re safe and secure for now.”

And next door to the charred church, two children threw snowballs in their yard, happy to be back home in familiar surroundings in time for the holidays.

Word of the loss traveled quickly and far, said Close. He has received notes and emails from neighbors and people all over the country who grew up in the church, offering help including building use, sharing worship with other congregations, hymnals, monetary donations — even several organs.

The greatest need, however, is time and patience, he said.

“It’s hard to see, you want to help right now, but this is ongoing.”

Attendance at Sunday services has increased slightly since the fire.

“I think it takes a crisis to get people remembering their roots,” Close said.

Fire Chief Wallace isn’t done helping the parishioners.

An architect by profession — he became a firefighter 20 years ago after building an addition to the firehouse — he has offered to help determine the best course of action, either restoring the church to its former state or demolishing it and building anew, just as early settlers did when the original church on the site burned down nearly 200 years ago.

“It really could go either way,” Wallace said.

On Sunday, the congregation held its traditional candle-lit Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols at St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church in Spencertown, and continues to worship on Sundays at the firehouse.

Church business goes on as usual — gathering food for the hungry, sending cards to shut-ins, providing holiday toys and gift cards for a local family.

Whatever the future of the red brick building holds, their faith in community is stronger than ever, uplifted by the outpouring of support from friends, neighbors and firefighters alike.

—Sharon Smullen, Berkshire Eagle correspondent; photos by Gillian Jones,527870

Calling the Canaan Fire House “Home”

The Church has accepted the gracious offer of the Canaan firefighters to use their fire house for Sunday worship services. So through the winter, the congregation will be holding regular 10 a.m. Sunday worship services at the Canaan Fire House. Sitting in the round, participating in the service and the sermon, the congregation is thankful for its temporary home. As an Open and Affirming congregation, all are welcome to participate in the church’s services.


10 a.m.

Canaan Fire House

2126 State Route 295

Canaan, NY 12029

Celebrate Christmas Eve with Carols and Lessons

The Canaan Congregational Church Celebrates Christmas Eve with Family Friendly Service at 5:00 p.m. at St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church, Spencertown, NY

Canaan Congregational Church will hold its Christmas Eve service at St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church, 5219 County Route 7, Spencertown, NY 12165 at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, December 24. Led by Rev. Dr. Charles Close, the service includes familiar Christmas readings, interspersed with traditional carols and special music by the choir. The final hymn will be sung in a sanctuary lit only by candles held by each participant, which is sure to delight young and old alike.

Celebrate Christmas on Sunday, December 24, 5 p.m., at St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church in Spencertown, NY

Award-winning musician Delana Thomsen will be the evening’s accompanist. Thomsen is a highly accomplished solo and collaborative pianist who has given recitals throughout Europe and the United States, as well as master classes in Iceland and Bulgaria. Thomsen has been affiliated with the Aspen Music Festival, the Juilliard School, and the Mannes College of Music. In New York, she has appeared at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Carnegie Recital Hall, and other venues. Locally, Delana was the pianist and assistant conductor of the Dalton Chorale, organist and music director at the Hillsdale (NY) Methodist Church, as well as concert pianist for the Hudson Valley Choral Society.

Berkshire Association, UCC Fall Gathering 2017: On Forgiveness

Save the Date!

3:00 PM, Sunday, October 22, 2017

First Congregational Church of Lee, 25 Park Place, Lee, MA

Berkshire Association, UCC Fall Gathering 2017

On Forgiveness

“What was once a reason for rupture and alienation becomes an opportunity for repair and greater intimacy. A life that seemed littered with obstacles and antagonism is suddenly filled with opportunity and love” (Desmond and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving).

This special event is for church members, friends, clergy, and laity.

Racism Series at the Quaker Intentional Village–Canaan (QIV-C)

Dismantling Racism: Building Capacity for White People to Understand Racial Injustice

There is one remaining session after August 19 (“Allies in resisting racism and white supremacy”), but you need not have attended any of the previous workshops to come to the final workshop in the “Cracking the Shell of Whiteness” series being held at QIV-C. Taken from a proven curriculum to build the capacity for white people to be in solidarity with people of color, this series creates space for white people interested in being effective allies with people of color in the work of dismantling racism and undoing white privilege. The workshops are free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. For more information, see

Final session:  September 16—“Creating action plans for the future”

Canaan Congregational Church in the News

We’re in the news!

Many thanks to Daniel Zuckerman and Columbia-Greene Media for attending the first Interfaith Celebration of the Earth and Jazz Worship Service at Canaan Congregational Church. Participants were led in meditation and prayer, with the music of saxophonist Willie Sordillo, pianist Chris Bakriges, bassist Avery Sharpe, and vocalist Zoë Krohne holding all together. Read the entire article at

Saxophonist Willie Sordillo, pianist Chris Bakriges, bassist Avery Sharpe, and vocalist Zoë Krohne (photo courtesy S. Bues, April 23, 2017)


Cracking the Shell of Whiteness

Dismantling Racism: Building Capacity for White People to Understand Racial Injustice (Racism Series at the Quaker Intentional Village–Canaan)

The first workshop—Identifying Whiteness—was held Saturday, April 15, 2017. This was the first of six monthly workshops from a proven curriculum to build the capacity for white people to be in solidarity with people of color. This curriculum was developed to create a space for white people interested in being effective allies with people of color in the work of dismantling racism and undoing white privilege.

The workshops are free and open to the public. It is not necessary to attend every workshop in the series. Refreshments will be served. RSVPs are requested but not required. For more information call 518-392-0289 and ask for Noah. The series is held at 235 Bradley’s Crossing Road, East Chatham, NY 12060.

Called Cracking the Shell of Whiteness, the next sessions include:

  • May 20—“Socialized into Whiteness”
  • June 10—“Where and When We Come From”
  • July 8—“The Legacy of White Privilege”
  • August 19—“Allies in Resisting Racism and White Supremacy”
  • September 16—“Creating Action Plans for the Future”

An Interfaith Celebration of the Earth: A Jazz Gathering on Earth Day Weekend

Featuring Saxophonist Willie Sordillo and his jazz trio, Chris Bakriges, Zoë Krohne, and Avery Sharpe

3:00 PM, Sunday, April 23, 2017

From such exotic locales as Singapore and Hawaii to major music festivals throughout North America, alto saxophonist Willie Sordillo’s music has taken him around the world. With the band, Flor de Caña, he is a three-time Boston Music Award winner. An album he produced became a top 10 hit on the Billboard Magazine, World Music listing, and one of his co-arrangements played on the ER television program. A writer as well as a player, Willie’s original compositions have been reproduced in a number of magazines, songbooks, and textbooks.

Celebrate the natural world with several faith communities, including Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians; rich jazz; and sage readings.

Willie Sordillo, jazz saxophonist

Sordillo has composed theme music for four movies, including the award-winning documentary, Project Censored. Recordings featuring his saxophone work include Muévete and Bailando en la muralla by Flor de Caña, Cartagena, with the Geoffrey Hicks Quartet, Besame Mucho, a duo session with Geoffrey Hicks, The Color of Grace and The Colors of Love by Judy Hanlon, and Ben Tousley’s recordings Open the Gates and Take My Hand. His acoustic guitar playing is featured on all of banjoist Pat Scanlon’s recordings, including his newly released double CD, Extremists for Peace. Willie’s most recent CD as a leader, echoing, features some of the Boston area’s finest jazz musicians. Willie leads weekly jazz services at Old South Church in Boston. The Canaan Congregational Church is proud and pleased to host this unique and insightful performer and musician.