March 29, 2020

Churches shelter storm’s refugees

Churches across northern Maine provided physical as well as spiritual shelter from last week’s devastating ice storm.

Some pastors canceled services for the first time Sunday, Jan. 11, while others conducted services in buildings left dark and cold after days without electricity or heat. Still others worshipped in sanctuaries with limited power provided by generators.

The First Congregational Church of Searsport became a shelter by default when residents of a nearby home for the elderly were turned away from the Belfast shelter. Priscilla King said that the church lost power about 2 a.m., Friday, Jan. 9. That evening it became the town’s shelter, powered by a generator provided by a church member.

The 27 residents of Bayview Manor, along with three staff members, were forced to leave the Searsport boarding home for the elderly Friday morning. They called MBNA in Belfast seeking shelter there, according to resident care director Beth Seekins, but were told they could not stay at the credit card company’s complex because they were not Belfast residents.

“One of our members is part of Searsport’s emergency team, and another is a contractor who had a generator, so we were able to provide shelter for them and others in town who needed it,” said King. “Some came from as far away as Stockton Springs. The church and Bayview Manor regained power late Saturday [Jan. 10] evening, but we continued to provide shelter for those who needed it.”

About 45 people stayed at the church overnight Friday and Saturday, according to King. By Tuesday, Jan. 13, only about 15 people needed shelter. King said about 40 church members and town residents had volunteered to help staff the shelter, and church services were held Sunday.

“We are burnt to a crisp from exhaustion,” Michelle Morneault joked Tuesday morning, as she leaned against the kitchen counter in the basement of the Calvary Apostolic Church in Winterport. The church began sheltering area residents the previous Thursday, Jan. 8, the fourth day of ice and freezing rain.

“One of our members donated a generator,” she said, “but we wore it out. The National Guard brought us a replacement this [Tuesday] morning, but we still don’t have phone service … We’ve had people here to get hot meals, take showers, warm up, and seek fellowship, but not stay overnight … We’ve gotten cots, mats and blankets from the Red Cross, so we’ve helped out 15 to 40 people a day … We’re going on prayers at this point.”

About 30 members of Bangor’s Redeemer Lutheran Church wore their coats, hats and gloves indoors last Sunday morning. The Rev. Elaine Hewes moved services from the sanctuary to the function room, where the sun helped warm the unheated building. Power was restored later that day, said Hewes.

The Rev. Larch Fidler, pastor of Holy Name Catholic Church in Machias, held services by candlelight Sunday. By afternoon Tuesday, Jan. 13, the parish hall, which had served as the town’s shelter, had had its power restored and was on standby in case the area again lost power for a substantial period.

In Bangor, St. Mary’s Catholic Church remained on generator power and phone lines were still out Tuesday, Jan. 13, according to the pastor, the Rev. Frank Murray. The school, which is on power and phone lines separate from the church and rectory, held classes for the first time in a week.

“We’ve been very lucky,” he said. “We replaced our generator last year, so we didn’t miss a liturgy. Most new Catholic churches have generators these days, so we are running the furnace and a few lights. I am using my car instead of my office phone.”

The Rev. Vicki Woods, district superintendent for the United Methodist Church, returned from Boston on Jan. 12 to find pastors in her northern Maine district busy helping congregation members and the community. Howland United Methodist Church served as the town’s shelter even though the pastor was in Iowa visiting family.

Emma Jean Cook, the church’s lay leader, began working with the Fire Department about 2 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 8, to open the church as a shelter. By 4 p.m., Cook and other church members were serving a hot meal. The church served more than 100 people, including Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. workers, at every meal through Monday, Jan. 12, and had 30 people spend the night before power was restored to the area last weekend.

“I always felt that I could make a difference in people’s lives,” Cook said the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 13. “But I didn’t know I could make such a difference in so many people’s lives until I began talking to people who stayed at the church. They said they really felt they were in a place and with people that cared for them, not just in a place because they had nowhere else to go.

“I have no experience in running a shelter,” she added, her voice choked with emotion. “I only have experience in raising a family. But that’s what we became during this experience. We became a family.”

The First United Methodist Church in Bangor canceled services last Sunday due to a power outage, said the Rev. Randall Chretien. By Tuesday, one phase of the three-phase system was working, he said. It was only the second time the Essex Street church had not held services. Bangor area churches planned to prepare a turkey dinner to serve Wednesday evening at the city shelter, Woods said late Tuesday afternoon.

When the Rev. Ernie Madden, minister of Christian education and youth at Columbia Street Baptist Church, lost power Thursday, Jan. 8, at his Hampden home, he and his family decided to spend the night at the church in Bangor. Even though the power was restored to his home within 24 hours, Madden decided to open the church as shelter Saturday.

“We only had three people stay the first night and five stay Sunday night,” he said. “But we had quite a few folks come by for showers and meals … Quite frankly, I thought we’d have more. I can’t figure out why we didn’t have 50 people. If everyone who called had come in, we’d have had at least 30, but I’m still glad for the experience.”

Officials were unsure what kind of damage was done to churches and rectories during the storm. Episcopal clergy were busy checking on parishioners and preparing for the storm’s aftermath, according to Hank Hancock, canon to the ordinary, at the diocese office in Portland.

“We still have about a dozen churches without power in the central portion of the state,” he said Jan. 13. “Now pastors are getting ready to help people restock their refrigerators, since food spoiled during the power outages. We are working to help people restock their shelves and recover from this.”

The Rev. Mary Ann Taylor, pastor of St. James Episcopal Church in Old Town, observed that “the spirit during this storm has been absolutely incredible. About half of my parishioners were without power Sunday, so some folks brought their televisions to the church to watch the National Football League’s championship games and cook together after services. People have stayed in touch with each other and cared for each other.”

She added that it seemed fitting for church members to gather to fight the darkness on Epiphany Sunday.

“This is a time when we celebrate a star shining in the darkness to lead the three Wise Men to the newborn Jesus … It is good to learn that we are powerless in another sense, as well as over the elements. The storm couldn’t have picked a better time liturgically,” Taylor said.

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