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Tornado topples steeple of Massachusetts church

Relief fund will aid congregation and members affected by the storms.
By Donald E. Skinner
6.6.11

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Unitarian Universalist Parish of Monson, Mass.

A June 1 tornado reduced the steeple of the historic Unitarian Universalist Parish of Monson, Mass., to a pile of rubble. (Kai Price)

Tornadic storms on June 1 destroyed the steeple of the Unitarian Universalist Parish of Monson, Mass. The storms also severely damaged the home of a UU family in Brookfield. Both are in western Massachusetts. No injuries were reported in either instance.

Tornados are a rare occurrence in New England. Overall the storms, which struck late in the afternoon, killed four people across Massachusetts and caused damage to more than 18 communities, including substantial damage to downtown Springfield and to Monson. State officials estimated that more than 200 people were injured and about 400 homes damaged.

The Monson congregation was in the final stages of completing a $215,000 renovation to its 1888 building. Last fall residents of Monson approved paying $115,000 in community preservation tax funds toward the renovations. A news article at that time described the church building, built with locally quarried “Monson granite” as “the face of our downtown.” The building is part of the town’s downtown historic district.

The building, on Monson’s Main Street, was closed in May 2010 for structural repairs and installation of new windows and frames. Those repairs were nearing completion when Wednesday’s storm hit. The building’s large stained glass window, which had been removed for repairs, was to have been reinstalled within days of the storm.

The steeple was not part of the renovations, said the Rev. Darrick Jackson, minister of the 19-member congregation for the past two years. He said other parts of the building were not damaged by the storm. A reopening celebration had been set for September. The congregation does not meet during the summer. While work was underway on the building, the congregation has been meeting at St. Paul’s Church, a UU congregation in Palmer.

Jackson said he learned about the damage from a parishioner who called him at about 8 p.m. Wednesday. “She told me the steeple was in a pile in the front of the church,” he said. “My first thought was disbelief because we’d just about completed a big renovation.” No one was in the church when the steeple fell.

The Rev. Sue Phillips, district executive of the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay districts, said the districts made funds available to the congregation Thursday to help it through the immediate recovery period. A fund to help with storm damage has been created as well. The front page of the districts’ website also includes information on taking up special collections at Sunday services.

Jackson said the Rev. Aaron Payson of the UU Trauma Response Ministry met with him Thursday.

The steeple, made mostly of wood, will be replaced, Jackson said. “There is no question. The congregation feels very strongly about the historic preservation of the building and its relationship to the town of Monson. We’ll find a way to do it.” He said the building was insured.

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