Conway church back in business after 2017 tornado

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 02-05-2023 7:08 PM

CONWAY — The United Congregational Church of Conway welcomed two parishes for its first-ever joint worship service on Sunday, celebrating the end of a four-year rebuilding process more united than ever.

“Yes, we can care individually, but we can care so much more when we do it together,” the Rev. Marianne MacCullagh said to the church’s tightly packed crowd. “When we combine our resources. When we stop thinking about, ‘This is mine and this is yours’ and ‘There is no ours.’”

Sunday morning was “all about big stuff,” the pastor summarized. Aside from the first joint service between the United Congregational Church of Conway and the First Congregational Church of Shelburne being held, this was also just the second all-church meeting held in the building on Whately Road, which was newly rebuilt after the original structure was destroyed by a tornado in 2017. To top it off, Sunday’s service included both Communion and a baptism.

“This service is important on several different levels,” said MacCullagh, who was appointed as joint pastor in November.

The original church, which had been standing since 1885, was heavily damaged by a tornado that swept through Conway in February 2017. It was initially thought that the damage could be repaired, but the damage proved to be too severe and the church was torn down in November 2018. Since then, the congregation has met at Conway Grammar School, at a campground and over Zoom.

“At the end of the day, one thing we realized over the past year is that a church is not a building,” moderator Marcus McLaurin said. “It is a group of people, it is a faith and it is there for people who are gathered in Christ’s name. This building is important only to provide a space for the community.”

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The new church is a single story and construction was financed using $1 million in insurance funds. While basically finished, it will be fully complete upon the installation of some stained glass windows and small elements taken from the old church.

Those who practice within the church might argue that its power rests within Christ and those who gather in his name, but they also made it clear that a beautiful new gathering space is more than welcome.

“I think we have a really exciting space,” McLaurin said. “It’s very bright and open. I forget to turn the lights on because it’s so bright.”

“There are more people in there right now than I have seen in both churches combined,” MacCullagh added. “The building means something to people and it means something to the folks in Conway. Having it open here in Conway is a big deal.”

MacCullagh expressed particular excitement about the building’s versatility. One example she cited is the church’s use of folding chairs rather than traditional pews, which allows for more adaptable use of the space. Being innovative with programming is particularly vital to the church as “we’ve lost our sense of the sacred” and interest is waning, the pastor argued.

“For hilltown churches and churches in general, the sense now is that not as many people go,” MacCullagh said. “It’s not as relevant to younger people. Part of what I do is try to make God relevant to people.”

To help bolster community investment, the church will have an open house on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 2 p.m., with a formal dedication ceremony set for 3 p.m. Here, guests will be able to enjoy refreshments as they get acquainted with their new building.

“I’m hoping that we can become a presence,” McLaurin said. “This town was founded around the church, so that importance is still a real thing.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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