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First Universalist Church of Southold, N.Y. (Jon Schusteritsch)

Historic Universalist church destroyed by fire

First Universalist Church of Southold, New York, built in 1837, incinerated March 14.
By Elaine McArdle

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First Universalist Church of Southold has stood on Long Island, N.Y., since 1837, filled with such historical treasures as a pipe organ (recently refurbished) and a 12-by-16-foot mural that hung in the chancel for almost 90 years.

But it all went up in flames on March 14, in a fire that completely destroyed the building. Although no one was hurt, everything in the church was incinerated, including the mural, donated in 1926 by the artist Edith Mitchill Prellwitz and valued at about $80,000.

“The building had been in place for eight generations,” said the Rev. Jef Gamblee, consulting minister for the past year and a half. “It was a physical member of the community, and so its loss is felt beyond the congregation.” The 55-member congregation had recently spent $5,000 to repair the organ and $10,000 for new floors in the parish hall; two grand pianos also were lost.

Ten hours after the conflagration, the congregation met for Sunday worship at the Custer Institute and Observatory, Long Island’s oldest public observatory, where Gamblee expects the services and congregational meetings to be held for the near future. “We spent the time grieving and telling stories,” he said. The board of trustees has already met to discuss the process of rebuilding the church, which was insured, he said.

“The congregation will continue to function as a congregation and will work through this,” Gamblee said. “I think the expectation on Sunday morning was that for the moment, yes, we will grieve because that is healthy, but at some point we will move forward.”

At the service, firefighters from the Southold Fire Department presented the congregation with the church bell and a sign that had been salvaged from the ruins. The firefighters noted that their own bell, which stands outside the firehouse, was given to them in 1889 by the Southold Universalists.

Gamblee has asked the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry to speak to the congregation about the trauma of the loss and to guide the board through next steps. Gamblee also reached out to and has received guidance and support from the Rev. Sylvia Stocker at the UU Church of Brunswick, Maine, which rebuilt its church after fire destroyed its historic building.

Firefighters think the Southold church fire began at around 11:15 Saturday night, said Gamblee, who lives about two hours away; he learned of the disaster at about midnight and raced to the site. He said there is speculation it was electrical in origin but fire investigators have not confirmed that. “They’ve also said there was such total destruction that it’s going to be a very difficult diagnosis as to what exactly caused it to burn,” he said.

Gamblee thanked the firefighters, who came from a number of area fire departments, noting that they saved buildings adjacent to the church, including the parsonage and a rental property. “We are very grateful for their response and the fact that no one was hurt,” he said.

The congregation is raising donations online, or via mail at First Universalist Church of Southold, PO Box 221, Southold, NY 11971.

Photograph (above): Firefighters could not save the 1837 meetinghouse of First Universalist Church of Southold, New York, when it burned overnight March 14–15, 2015 (© Jon Schusteritsch). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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