Cory L. Heath looks over what is left of the West Cummington Congregational Church. She lives just down the hill from the church but didn’t realize it was burning Sunday until she saw the fire trucks.
CUMMINGTON – Four members of the West Cummington Congregational Church are sitting around a card table in the church’s parish house, playing mah-jongg.
The rules of the game are unfathomable to the casual observer, but Nanette M.A. Clark, the acknowledged mah-jongg master here, is kind enough to spell it. She also explains the reason for the contest.
“We’re playing for relief from sadness,” she says.
Until Sunday, Clark and her fellow parishioners could see their church out the front window of the parish house, where they would customarily gather after services. Today, if you look closely, you can see a few charred timbers next to an excavator.
Fire Chief Bernard Forgea has just come down from the site shaking his head. The fire that reduced the 1839 church to rubble on Sunday is still on his mind.
It’s also on the minds of everyone who lost the building where people had the rare opportunity to piece together a unique belief system from a smorgasbord of ideas.
“As my beliefs changed, it allowed that,” says Laura A. Sheridan, a member of the congregation for 15 years. “Everyone else seemed to be on their journey, too.”
If you take the turn off Route 9 to Cummington center, you will miss the West Cummington Congregational Church. The town center has the elementary school, the fire station and the Village Congregational Church, a classic New England church with a white steeple and a sign out front that says, “West Cummington Church, Our Prayers Are With You.”
This is downtown Cummington, if you will. To get to the other church you must drive another five miles west and turn into the hamlet of West Cummington, a Currier-and-Ives setting with the Westfield River running through the middle.
This other Cummington might look like a quintessential Yankee bastion, but the church on the hill was not a place where you would hear “Bringing in the Sheaves” on the sabbath. More likely, it would be Marissa Nield of the band the Nields singing one of her own creations, or minister Stephen Philbrick reading a Robert Frost poem.
“We take our Scriptures wherever we find the word of God speaking to us,” says Philbrick, a poet, woodcutter and former shepherd who has been on the pulpit since 1994.
Sometimes, Philbrick says, the word comes from the Bible. Other times, it’s from the Tao Te Ching or a poem or a song.
“I don’t believe God stopped speaking 2,000 years ago,” he says.
Philbrick came running around the corner from his home at about 6 a.m. on Sunday to see the church up in flames. Even as firefighters arrived from various hilltowns, Philbrick knew it was a lost cause.
“I immediately let go of it,” he says.
The state fire marshal’s office lists the cause as “accidental.” Forgea was on site Wednesday to take another look at the furnace, the possible origin of the fire.
The parishioners are adamant and united in their desire to rebuild, but that could take a couple of years. In the meantime, the parish house, built in 1845, will double as a meeting place on Sundays. The church is a hard act to follow, however.
“It was very simple,” says Susan M. Flores, 69, who drove down from Plainfield for services. “It was a warm and welcoming building, nothing fancy about it. But it had great acoustics.”
Musicians from Tanglewood would play at the church every summer, according to Flores, and the congregation would sometimes invite Shakespearean actors to orate. Flores, who describes herself as a non-religious person, is part of a far-flung congregation that includes people of various beliefs and sexual preferences who come from as far away as Northampton.
“It’s not hippie in the meaning of the ’60s,” says Sheridan, 41, who was raised a Roman Catholic. “It’s more non-conformist. The vast majority of us would be considered eccentric if we were not together as a group.”
Philbrick, 60, is an apt choice to lead the flock. He works one day a week at the Old Creamery Grocery on Route 9, the social hub of Cummington, and, by his account, has gotten to know most everyone in the hilltowns. A car parked in front of the parish house sports a bumper sticker that reads, “Fleece on Earth, Good Wool to Ewe,” but it belongs to another shepherd. Philbrick’s bumper sticker says, “Strong men don’t bully.”
When he began honing his pastoral skills at the church, Philbrick was paid $50 a sermon from the collection plate. The church treasurer would count the money while he was speaking and speak out if she found it short.
“She’d say, ‘Wait a minute! There’s not $50 in here,’” he laughs. “Then she’d send it around again.”
Philbrick is as emotional about the help he has received as he is about the fire.
One of the few pieces of furniture in the building, a German Knabe piano, was destroyed. A local man called Philbrick to say he has a Knabe but doesn’t use it much. Would the church like to have it?
The iron church bell broke in the fire and partially melted, but the congregation has salvaged pieces of it. There’s some discussion about making it into a sculpture for the new church. Like the old church, the building will be bare of religious symbols but full of spirit.
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