8 Years After Fire, Saugatuck Church Organ Is Ready To Resound

In 2011, a fire just before Thanksgiving nearly destroyed Saugatuck Congregational Church.

A spectacular effort by firefighters — and firewalls — prevented complete destruction of the historic building. But the sanctuary was ruined.

The music department was devastated too. They lost 5 pianos, choir robes, a 100-year-old music library with thousands of sheets of music, and a pipe organ.

Firefighters from several towns battled to save the Saugatuck Congregational Church.

It took years for the church to rebuild. The organ was insured; monies helped rebuild the sanctuary.

Meanwhile, a committee sought designs and quotes from top-notch organ builders around the world. The Klais Orgelbau was chosen for its warmth of tone, design of the case, and the family feel of its company.

Installation began this summer. Finally — nearly 8 years after the fire — the new organ is ready.

The Saugatuck Church organ.

On Sunday, October 13 (2 p.m.), Saugatuck Church celebrates with a special concert.

The performers were all chosen for the compassion they showed after the fire.

James Boratko and his church in West Hartford reached out immediately. They loaned hymnals, anthems and choir robes. “Having parishioners singing from hymnals together” — even at other sites — “helped mold us as a community,” says Saugatuck’s director of music Heather Hamilton.

Rev. Ed Thompson

Ed Thompson at the Unitarian Church also called quickly, offering music, support, and a place to rehearse every week for 2 years. “We felt welcome, and loved being there as a group,” says Hamilton. (She took her first organ lessons from Thompson, and considers him a mentor.)

Craig Scott Symons gave Hamilton a keyboard. That helped her work remotely, and with the choir when they worshiped in different places.

Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church — a few yards across Myrtle Avenue from Saugatuck Church — offered the use of Branson Hall for the townwide Thanksgiving feast, just a few days after the blaze. Congregants worshiped in Christ & Holy Trinity’s Seabury Center many Sundays and Christmas Eves, while their own building was rebuilt. Temple Israel opened its arms to the congregation, providing worship space for over 2 years.

Saugatuck Church invites everyone to the October 13 concert. After all, Hamilton notes, contributions for the new organ came from throughout Westport and beyond — not just parishioners.

In that spirit, the church is eager to share its organ with others. Several concerts are already planned. And the American Guild of Organists looks forward to sharing their music and master classes on it.

(The October 13 concert starts at 2 p.m., and is free. A reception follows at 3 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by the Westport Library.)

12 responses to “8 Years After Fire, Saugatuck Church Organ Is Ready To Resound

  1. Rabbi Robert Orkand

    I think it important to mention that one of the first congregations to offer help and support to Saugatuck Congregational Church after the fire was Temple Israel. Every Sunday morning for two years, I believe, Temple Israel’s sanctuary became a church and some of the classrooms were used for religious instruction.

    It is not unusual for churches to house “start-up” or small Jewish congregations. In fact, one of Temple Israel’s earliest homes was Saugatuck Congregational Church. How could we not return the favor! And during my 31 years at Temple Israel some of my closest clergy friends and partners were and still are the Church’s clergy—Ted Hoskins, Doug Miller and John Danner come to mind.

    And so, on this momentous occasion I wish the members of Saugatuck Congregational Church and its clergy Mazal Tov!

    • Temple Israel was indeed one of the first to respond in our time of need. It was a mitzvah. I am sure it was an oversight in the article. Thank you for pointing this out.
      We will always be grateful to our long standing relationship and are sure this will continue in the future!

      • Heather Hamilton

        Just so all are aware. I sent Dan a list of people who directly helped on the Music front after the fire. That is how the musicians were chosen for the concert. It was not an oversight on Dans part in who and what was listed. We are all thankful for the community support and hope Saugatuck will continue to be a welcoming place for all. Thanks again, Dan!

  2. Temple Israel deserves a mention here. Saugatuck met at the Temple on Sunday for much of the time the church was under construction. This hospitality reminds us that Saugatuck Church was the home of Temple Israel in the 40s before the synagogue was built.

    • Rabbi Robert Orkand

      Yes—I wrote a comment, as well. That was a time of wonderful cooperation and kindness.

  3. Rabbi Orkand and Pete Powell’s accounts of Temple Israel’s outreach to help Saugatuck Congregational Church remind us of what it means to be a caring community. Temple Israel opened their doors to Saugatuck Church to worship the Sunday after the fire in 2011 where we worshipped every Sunday until returning to our rebuilt church Christmas Eve 2014. The support of the interfaith community, the town of Westport, and innumerable Westport organizations and individuals contributed so much to Saugatuck during this challenging time. Thank you!

  4. charles taylor

    Thank God that Religion is a Team Sport!
    Great article about helping neighbors!
    What you’d expect in Westport.

  5. Deb Holliday Kintigh

    The hand of God at work! The outreach, support and love offered by the other religious institutions in and out of town makes my heart smile!

    I have SO many memories of SCC and how our family life was built around our involvement in Sunday School, Choirs, Pilgrim Fellowship, links to the CT Friendship Team, etc. etc. As we approach what would have been my Dad’s 102nd birthday on Oct. 21st, I have visions of him after Sunday services lead by Ted Hoskins, standing by the organ while Andy Heath played ~ rich, warm memories!

  6. Alexander Platt

    A great story Dan, as usual!!

  7. Mary Schmerker

    I can’t let this one go by with out a comment. I recently heard a sermon about Heaven that basically said: “Don’t think that you will be idle or bored in Heaven. God will involve you in the creative process.” So, on that note I can only begin to imagine the heavenly choirs participation on October 13th.
    John Ohanion and his wife were choir director and organist at one time… for a long time I believe. My Grandmother, Ella Otis was the organist when the church was across the Post Road and Buell Neidlinger was in the Youth Choir at that time. Mrs. Roman Heyn donated money for a new organ in her mother’s memory. And another parishioner donated money for a perpetual up keep of the organ. I have letters about that written by Rev. Daniels to my Grandmother. If any one is interested I’ll dig up the letters and give the dates and the name of the donor. My guess is that there are many others that could be added to this list.

    • Donald Freeman

      Yes, the part about John and Phyllis Ohanian as choir director and organist, respectively, is true. They were my mother and stepfather; John was supervisor of music in the Westport public schools. And as a child I sang in the Angelus Choir (I don’t remember a Youth Choir, but maybe there was one, and I do remember Buell Neidlinger, who died only recently). I just found out about the fire in SCC a month or so ago. That was a memorable moment in that church’s history. Another was when they moved the church across the Post Road to its present location. The move was featured in Life magazine. My daughter was christened in that church, and I have very fond memories of it.

      • Mary Schmerker

        Thanks for correcting my spelling of your stepfather’s last name. I may not have remembered correctly the name of the Children’s choir. I so wish I had saved Buell’s e-mail to me about my grandmother. I was baptized when the church was across the Post Road, also remember when it was moved. We all came to watch! Then in 1966 Charlie and I were married by Rev. Daniels at the church in its present location. The funeral services for my grandmother, mother and brother were all performed in the church and they are all in Evergreen Cemetary, not far from Buell’s parents. Lots and lots of memories of mine involve Saugatuck Congregational Church and lots of town history involved the Church.