Residents of Spencer suffered a “heartbreaking loss” Friday when the historic First Congregational Church burned to the ground, destroying an icon of the small town in central Massachusetts, according to the chair of the Spencer Historical Commission.
A Congregational church has stood at 207 Main St. since 1743, predating Spencer’s incorporation as a town independent of Leicester, said Mary Baker-Wood, the commission chair.
The town was a district of Leicester when the original church was built, and its construction “promoted the sense of Spencer as a separate community,” Baker-Wood said Friday evening.
“As is true in many New England communities, the Congregational Church was one of the first important buildings erected in the Town and served in both a religious and civic capacity,” Baker-Wood wrote in an e-mail to the Globe Friday night.
According to the church’s website, the original building, “was little more than a barn . . . there were no pews,” and it was replaced in 1772 with a larger church.
That church, described as “substantial” and “elegant,” stood until 1862, when it was destroyed by fire, the website said.
A new church designed by Worcester architect Elbridge Boyden (who also designed historic Mechanics Hall in Worcester), was built and dedicated on April 8, 1863, Baker-Wood said.
“That is the church we so tragically lost today,” Baker-Wood said. “The iconic white spire on the hill has been a beacon to generations who pass by it on Main Street.”
Warren Burnett of East Brookfield said he drove past the church on his way to work Friday morning.
“I’ve been walking past it and driving by it every day for the past 17 years,” said Burnett, 43, a former Spencer resident. “Me and my wife are very distraught over it.”
Burnett said he and his wife, who had a baptism and attended meetings at the church, would go to the Economy Shop, the thrift store in the basement.
“It’s gonna be really missed because I think it’s one of the biggest historical icons for Spencer, Burnett said. “So for something like that to happen, it’s pretty horrific.”
The fire was a loss for the church’s close-knit congregation and to the larger community, she said.
“Many of Spencer’s most prominent families have belonged to the church and most long-time residents have attended countless baptisms, weddings, funerals, and public events there,” Baker-Wood said.
According to First Congregation’s calendar, Girl Scouts, recovery groups and others held meetings at the church during the week. The Economy Shop, which sold second hand clothing, accessories and home goods, was open three mornings per week. Worship was held on Sundays at 10 a.m.
The fire has left a large void in the community, she said.
“Residents will long remember that the smoke could be seen for miles and that they lost a tangible reminder that these beautiful buildings live in people’s hearts,” Baker-Wood said.
Globe Correspondent Claire Law contributed to this report.
Adam Sennott can be reached at email@example.com.