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163-year-old church reopens after blaze

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Pastor Bruce Smith and his daughter Sophia prepared for services at Central Congregational Church in Middleborough.

MIDDLEBOROUGH - The electrical fire started in the “Ladies Parlor,’’ an oval room used for dinners and Bible studies, and raged upward through the walls and roof of the Grecian-style church built in 1848. The 60-foot-high steeple, a landmark that can be seen from the highway, crackled in the inferno and was destroyed.

As the pastor of Central Congregational Church watched in disbelief in the early morning of May 25, 2009, he prayed with about a dozen pastors from other churches who arrived to offer support. It was a little before 7 a.m. on Memorial Day, and families were beginning to gather to take up space along the parade route, which ran past the church. The fire canceled that event.

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As the firefighters worked to douse the blaze, conversation turned to rebuilding.

“We knew from the get-go that what we had was a beautiful masterpiece, so it only made sense to do everything we could to retain it, to rebuild and once again worship inside,’’ said the Rev. Bruce D. Smith, pastor of the Central Congregational Church on Webster Street.

Today at 10 a.m., the church will host a Christmas Days service, the first since the fire and a $3 million rebuild. Last night, parishioners attended a Christmas Eve service at the church, marking its reopening.

“The church still looks like it used to,’’ Smith said. While the church, decked in a fresh coat of white paint and surrounded by newly laid sod, has the look of a newly constructed building, many parts of it are original, enough to keep it listed on the National Historical Registry. The staircase, the elaborate wrought-iron railing that borders the balcony at the back of the church, and many stained-glass windows were saved from the fire.

But the losses - volumes of music, pews, choir robes - far outweighed what was saved.

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Three of the four original walls were saved, however, in what congregants called a “miracle.’’

Middleborough Fire Chief Lance Benjamino said about a dozen fire departments from other communities pitched in to help save the building.

“That church is an icon in the center of Middleborough,’’ he said. “When we got that call, everybody came together and worked extremely hard.’’

Firefighters battled to save the church’s artifacts, he said, including colorful rectangular stained-glass windows.

“Not many churches that old can survive such a fire because they have heavy timber construction,’’ he said. “The fire just ran through the building and the wall, but the firefighters worked hard and even while we were trying to put it out, firefighters were retrieving artifacts.

On Friday, Smith and a few parishioners spent time tidying up the church in preparation for today’s service.

For the more than two and a half years that it took for the reconstruction, the approximately 120 members of the church worshipped across the street in a gym that is part of the Central Baptist Church. Smith said the congregation was grateful for the gift of the space but eager to be home again in their own church.

“We don’t own the sound system or the chairs or anything there,’’ he said. “Those things belong to Central Baptist Church, and they’ve been really really good to us by providing a home when we didn’t know where to go. It will be nice, though, to be back in our building.’’

Bob Thomson, a member of the church for 14 years, said the timing of the return to their church makes it particularly gratifying.

“We’re all thrilled that this is happening on Christmas Eve,’’ he said. “It seems like someone was looking out for us throughout this whole process and timed the finishing perfectly.’’

Thomson said he has “held a lot of hats’’ in the church, working as a treasurer and in other positions before becoming the custodian. Because of his current position, investigators enlisted his help in examining the remains of the church immediately after the blaze was extinguished. In that position, he was called on by firefighters and other investigators to go over the layout of the church immediately after the fire was put out.

“I toured the devastation, and it was absolutely gut-wrenching,’’ he said. “Some of our artifacts were saved, like the cross on the altar and some furniture, but everything else was a complete loss . . . . We basically had to build a brand-new church, but thankfully we still had those walls.’’

The church steeple, a beacon to many in the area because it can be seen from far away, was not salvageable, but artisans made an exact replica, which now sits atop the church, including a 300-pound gold-leaf weather vane.

Insurance paid for about $2.5 million of the rebuild, with the rest of the cost coming from donations and fund drives.

Initially, church administrators predicted they would be back in the church within a year, but it took that long before construction began. First, they did extensive groundwork.

“We wanted to do a quality job,’’ Smith said.

The church met with architects and then the zoning approval process began. The steeple took several months to be completed. Structural engineers had to figure out how to reinforce the original walls. The church was gutted because all the water that was used to put out the fire caused mold.

“There were a lot of people who thought we wouldn’t be able to rebuild, but we had faith that we could do it and now we have,’’ Smith said. “Now we have our home back.’’

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @globeballou.

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