By Katina Caraganis
TOWNSEND -- The Rev. Jeremy St. Martin will likely never forget the first few days of his new assignment as pastor at St. John the Evangelist Parish.
St. Martin was reassigned to the parish immediately after a devastating three-alarm fire that left the church without an activity center in December 2011.
The two-story church center was destroyed, and a neighboring house was badly damaged after the fire erupted on Brookline Street, in the town's historic center.
Fire Chief Donald Klein estimated at the time that the activity center at 14 Brookline St. on the town common and valued at $226,000, was a total loss.
The three-bedroom Colonial house at 16 Brookline St. was severely damaged. The family living there was able to escape. A 6-foot cross mounted on the side of the home was relatively untouched by the fire.
The church had just been renovated to meet code requirements, so that it could be used as a six-classroom activity center.
Since then, St. Martin and members of the church have made it their mission to rise from the ashes and build a new activity center that will continue to meet the needs of the church and surrounding community for years to come.
The new activity center will be two floors and contain eight meeting rooms that can be used for church functions and community events.
There also will be a large function hall. Construction began earlier this year after getting approval from the Planning Board in town.
The plan is for the largest building the property will allow. There are no plans to expand going forward.
"Things are definitely getting done around here," St. Martin said Friday, while noting he hopes the majority of the work will be done in time for Christmas. "The fire and having to deal with this was not something I expected but it is what it is. Selfishly, I was happy it happened before I got here and not during. Before my assignment began, people were all calling it the warm welcome. At this point in my career and my life, nothing surprises me any more."
The activity center is a major asset to the parish, he said, and building a new one to suit the ever-changing needs of those groups who benefit from it was imperative, he said.
"This new building is going to help us do so much more going forward," he said. "With so many different groups using space here, we need to have adequate space to house them."
The first floor of the center will be finished first, he said, with the second floor left as an unfinished area that will be tailored to the church's needs in the future, St. Martin said. The building was designed as two separate buildings stacked on top of each other, he said. Each has its own private entrance and can host separate activities without disturbing the other.
The budget for the project was set at $825,000, he said, which has been funded through insurance money from the fire, savings, loans and fundraising.
"We're hoping we don't go over our budget. We've made a lot of conscious decisions about things and we're trying not to waste anything," he said. "Hopefully we'll come in under budget so we'll have some set aside to work on the second floor later."
Selectman Robert Plamondon is not a parishioner at St. John's, but is excited the church seems to be getting back on its feet.
The parish center hosts many church and community groups, including the scouting program, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, religious education, the Knights of Columbus, the youth ministry and holy widows.
"I think they're obviously very civic-minded and they're heavily involved in the community," he said. "They're certainly a positive force in the community."
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