MONSON — When a devastating tornado roared through the center of this small town two years ago, it tore the steeple off The First Church of Monson, leaving it in pieces on the hillside.
In the aftermath of the storm, people made their way to the 18th-century church, to make sure family and neighbors were safe, and to take stock of the damage done.
For weeks, the church became a headquarters for the town’s recovery efforts, serving thousands of meals and organizing volunteers. The fallen steeple, an immediate symbol of the devastation, came to stand for the town’s unity and resolve in the face of hardship.
On Thursday, the landmark steeple was returned to its rightful place high above the Central Massachusetts town, as delighted residents watched every moment.
“Something was taken away,” said Paul Hatch, a longtime parishioner who managed the $2.4 million project. “Now we’re getting it back.”
The cost of the new steeple was covered by insurance. It is a replica of the old steeple, with an exterior that looks like wood. But it is actually made of reinforced concrete, designed to withstand even tornado-level gusts.
“It’s not going to come down again,” said Tom Clason, 79, who has lived in town for 60 years.
Clason arrived early to see the “big doings” of the day, and was reminded of the first days after the tornado, when the church stayed open around the clock and served three meals a day to anyone in need. With downtown devastated by the twister, the church became the center of everything, a rallying point for the long rebuild.
“It all happened right here,” he said. “It’s been quite a couple of years.”
Residents had watched the rebuilding closely over the past few months, and turned out early to see the spire installed. Some looked on from lawn chairs, sipping coffee and chatting with friends. Others sat in half-circles on stumps of trees lost to the storm. As the workers put the finishing touches on the spire, many said it felt as if things had finally been set right.
“As long as this tower wasn’t here, it was a reminder of the tornado,” said Bob Dumas, 62.
Dumas was in Wisconsin on business when the storm came, and found out about it from the woman behind the desk at his hotel.
She said a small town in Massachusetts had gotten hit the worst, a town called Monson. She didn’t pronounce it right, but he knew which one she meant.
His family was fine and his house was spared, but he was stunned to see the fallen church steeple on television. When he came home a few days later, it took him six hours to drive 40 miles home from the airport.
“Just chaos,” he said.
Down the hill a bit, Lori Bear, 51, looked up at the steeple with a smile. She was standing right where the steeple had fallen, she said, smashed into splinters on the lawn. Over the past few months, she watched workers build it anew, piece by piece. She would wave at the workers, and take note of their progress.
Now, the work was nearly done.
“It means we’re back,” she said. “Back to normal.”
Many described the new steeple as a way to turn the page.
“It was like a scar,” said Kevin McNabb, 57.
McNabb had planned to visit his brother in Stoughton on Thursday. But when he found out it was the day the spire was going up, he rescheduled.
Richard LaFond, 70, who grew up in town, said the steeple’s return was proof that broken things could be fixed.
“It’s an engineering marvel,” he said. “It points to the future.”
When people began to arrive at the church, the sky was dark, like a storm might be coming. But as the morning wore on, the sun appeared, and the sky turned blue.
Finally, the crane lifted the spire off the pavement, high into the air, and placed it gently atop the steeple.
There were no cheers, but people said it looked beautiful, just like before, which was reassuring.
“It’s been a lonely church,” said Michelle Raymond. “Now we can close the chapter.”