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From salvaged pew, artisan crafts custom guitar

Auctioned instrument raises money for rebuilding church in Brunswick, Maine.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
Spring 2013 2.15.13

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Carter E. Ruff

Carter Ruff, member of the UU Church of Brunswick, Maine, in his guitar workshop. (Troy Bennett)

Most of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick was lost to fire, smoke, and water damage when the Maine church burned in June 2011. Though the building has been razed, a small part of it has found new life in a custom-built guitar, crafted by longtime church member Carter Ruff.

Ruff is a musician, guitar teacher, and luthier—or maker of stringed instruments. He was married in the Brunswick church, and his children attend Sunday school there. As members scrambled to raise money for the reconstruction of the sanctuary, Ruff contemplated what kind of contribution he could make. A large financial gift was not in the cards. With a mortgage and young children, he said, “things were eating into our store of treasures.” But looking around his garage workshop, he realized that he could contribute a guitar to an auction planned to bolster revenues for rebuilding.

And not just any guitar. Ruff crafted a guitar from wood he salvaged from the burned church’s pews.

Fire destroyed the ceiling and back of the church. Smoke and water from fire hoses damaged much of the rest of the building. The pews, however, were covered with seat cushions, which protected the pine. “I managed to find a stretch of pine that was suitable for the soundboard. It was clear and free of defects,” Ruff said, adding that he likes to use salvaged wood and materials that have a story to them. And he likes that reusing materials is environmentally responsible.

Ruff began building the “UUCB Commemorative Guitar” in the spring of 2012 in his workshop, called Subterranean Music Works, in nearby Bath. He hasn’t counted the number of hours he has put into its construction. In fact, he said he never does. “If I tracked my hours, I would probably hang it up,” he laughed.

As of mid-November, the guitar was nearly complete. Ruff had applied the finish coat to the wood, and was waiting for it to finish curing. The high bidders for the guitar will soon be taking delivery of their new instrument.

The high bidders at the church auction on November 3 were none other than the church’s minister, the Rev. Sylvia Stocker, and her husband Steve Wellcome. “I’m so excited to be the lucky winner,” said Stocker, whose winning bid was $3,000.

She and Wellcome are both guitar players, and Stocker said they will share the instrument. “It’s hard not to fall in love with Carter’s guitars,” she said. “They are beautiful instruments and beautiful sounding. Each one is unique.”

Wellcome tracked the construction of the guitar, visiting Ruff’s workshop regularly and documenting his progress in a series of photos that he posted on the church’s website.

Rebuilding the church

The auction raised about $12,000 toward the church’s rebuilding fund. Church members have a rebuilding plan in hand; however, the estimates they received exceed their budget. The church has already held a capital campaign raising $950,000—an amount that exceeded their already ambitious goal of $850,000, and fundraising continues.

As they prepare to rebuild, the church is holding services in a Jewish temple in Bath. They have many church meetings in the Brunswick library. That has had the unexpected benefit of drawing more community members to its meetings, according to Stocker. “We’re a church without walls. The social justice work we do appeals to a broad spectrum of people,” Stocker said. Some of those people might have been shy about attending a meeting at their church. However, it’s easier for them to slip into a meeting at the library. “It’s been a real learning for us,” said Stocker, adding that she hopes that even after the church is rebuilt, they can continue to hold meetings outside the building.

Stocker said the entire rebuilding process has had a profound effect on her ministry. So having a guitar made from the old church’s pews is a powerful symbol of transformation. Like the creation of the guitar, the rebuilding process has shown how a traumatic event can turn into something special and wondrous, she said.

Ruff has walked beside her on many stages of the journey, starting on the day of the fire. Stocker was the first to enter the building after firefighters deemed it safe. And Ruff was one of the next to come in. In the soggy, dripping, smoky mess, Ruff was drawn immediately to the church’s baby grand piano. It had been covered, saving it from water damage. And Ruff immediately treated the piano strings so they wouldn’t suffer from the smoke and moisture. “He was right on the job, and quietly offered his gift,” Stocker said.

Music has been a large part of the church’s recovery. The first Sunday after the fire, the congregation gathered and sang lyrics written by Stocker’s mother.

Mary Lou Stocker had written the song to commemorate the merging of the Unitarian and Universalist churches in Canton, Mass. One of her goals was to alleviate the sadness that members of the First Universalist Church in Canton felt over losing their beloved building. The chorus of the song is:

Our church is more than framework.
More than windows and ringing bell.
It is people close in spirit,
Who in sharing worship well.

Members of the Brunswick church sang the song at Stocker’s installation as minister of the church in 2008. Church member and composer Grace Lewis-McLaren even wrote new music for it for that occasion. The words gained new meaning after the burning of the Brunswick church. “I feel as if the congregation has lived the message of that song,” Stocker said. “Everyone wants their building, but they know the building is not who they are.”

Though the music for the hymn is written for piano, Stocker imagines that she will be able to play it on her new guitar, strumming a message about the power of the Brunswick church’s community and its ability to rebuild together.

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