Hanging in the new sanctuary of the Canaan Congregational Church is a colorful fabric banner depicting the Tree of Life, with words across the top that say “Hands To Work, Hearts To God.” I immersed myself in the creation of this Tree of Life banner, which took more than eight hundred hours to design and create. It is a gift expressing my love for God, Life, and our Canaan Congregation.
About eight years ago, the Deacons of the congregation asked me to make a banner for the church. The fruit of that discussion was the Tree of Life idea, with a verbal message from the Shaker tradition. I began work on the banner, but soon was stricken with a serious, rare illness, which sidelined the banner work until relatively recently. With my health much improved, I was able to complete the banner just in time for the dedication of our new worship space. Had I not set the work aside for a time, it could have gone up in ﬂames when our church building burned.
Trees nurture each other as do the members of the church family at Canaan Congregational Church
The Tree of Life has surfaced as an important religious symbol in many traditions, in differing forms, carrying a variety of meanings: love, peace, honoring of ancestors, growth and strength, harmony, family, fertility, wisdom, immortality and rebirth, and a connection to everything. In the Celtic tradition, the Tree of Life is depicted in multiple forms. The roots represent the “otherworld,” the trunk represents the mortal world and connects the roots and branches, and the branches represent the world above, or the heavens. When they cleared their lands, the ancient Celts, who held great reverence for trees, would leave one single tree standing in the middle. They would hold their important gatherings under this tree and it was a very serious crime to cut it down. It represented harmony and balance and was an important symbol in the Celtic culture.
“She (Wisdom) is a Tree of Life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.” — Proverbs 3:18 (New International Version)
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are several references to the Tree of Life. The ﬁrst is in the Book of Genesis. It is a tree that grows within the Garden of Eden and is the source of eternal life. In Christianity, some believe it to be the symbol of humanity free from corruption and sin, while others believe it to represent love. The tree is believed to have healing properties, and its fruit grants immortality. Because Islam honors many stories from the Bible, the Tree of Life, which appeared in Eden, is known as the Tree of Immortality in the Quran. Buddhists have the Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
The choice of the Tree of Life is of deep meaning to me personally because I have been a tree lover all my life. As a very young child, I used to think that the trees swaying on a windy day were expressing themselves by creating the wind with their dancing movement. My scientist parents promptly disabused me of this notion, but I continued to think of trees as marvelous and very alive beings. Now science is discovering that trees do indeed “communicate” with one another underground, via tiny white strands of fungus in the soil called mycelium: Trees nurture each other as do the members of the church family at Canaan Congregational Church.
On November 6, 2017, a fire engulfed and destroyed our 190-year-old brick Canaan Congregational Church building beyond repair. But we’ve been busy, holding worship services at the Canaan Firehouse on Route 295 just east of the church and spearheading all the necessary steps in erecting a new church home. The congregation’s exile is now over, and on December 15, Canaan Congregational Church welcomes congregants and friends to celebrate worship services in our new church building, erected on the footprint of the old structure.
Join us on December 15 at 10 a.m. with coffee hour to follow
Designed by Ann Vivian AIA of Guillot, Vivian, Viehmann Architects (GVV) of Burlington, Vermont, the new building is energy efficient, low maintenance, and fully handicapped accessible, with room for socializing and worship services. Working with Vivian and the church’s building committee, Tim Schroder of Enginuity Engineering and Design of Chatham, New York, oversaw the entire process from demolition through completion of the new facility’s construction.
Pastor Charlie Close says, “We now have a flexible, welcoming space that can be used for worship, meetings, and community events. We were able to salvage a few items from the fire, and owing to the fine woodworking skills of some of our members, we have door handles and a desk made from the wood of the old pews. By honoring our past, we can move faithfully and intentionally into a new chapter.”
With an official certificate of occupancy on hand and a small punch list of items remaining to be tackled, the church is ready to welcome members and friends to worship on December 15 at 10 a.m. with coffee hour to follow, after which regular worship services will be held in the new building on Sundays at 10 a.m.
The Canaan Congregation is full of gratitude for the warm welcome by St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church, in Spencertown, New York, for the past two Christmas Eves, but is excited to celebrate in our new home this coming Christmas Eve, Tuesday, December 24 at 5 p.m., with familiar Christmas readings, interspersed with traditional carols and special music by the choir.
Join us Christmas Eve, Tuesday, December 24 at 5 p.m. for a family friendly celebration!
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.”
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.”
One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) is one of three offerings that the Canaan Congregational Church sponsors during the year to support its wider mission. This offering enables the United Church of Christ to reach people and communities affected by disaster, displacement, or poverty, in the United States and throughout the world. The Missions Group is pleased to announce that this year’s offering from the Canaan Church totaled $905! That’s generous giving to OGHS!
In other giving, the Missions Group was able to contribute $800 in response to a special appeal from the Berkshire Immigrant Center, which each year provides important support services to the families of more than 800 immigrants and refugees living in the Berkshires. The initial contribution was generously supplemented by gifts from four members of the congregation who are especially interested in the work of the Center.
Once again, this little church has come up big in its response to appeals for assistance from the local and global communities!
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.
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
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.
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.