Editor’s note: This story by Liz Sauchelli originally appeared in the Valley News on March 29.
PERKINSVILLE — Yoga instructor Lisa Gleeson was nearing the end of a Monday night class in the basement of the Perkinsville Community Church when she and her students heard a loud noise.
“It started out as a little rumble, and it kind of sounded like a thunderstorm or a passing truck,” Gleeson recalled in a phone interview Tuesday morning. “Then it sounded like someone was throwing pianos across the room upstairs.”
Then one of his students saw the ceiling tiles above his head begin to shake.
“We all closed our eyes to each other and said we had to get out and fast,” Gleeson said. “As soon as you heard the sound, you knew it was destructive. You knew it was not a good thing.
They got out of the room when the smoke detector went off and called the fire department.
West Weathersfield Fire Chief Joshua Dauphin was the first to arrive at the scene in central Perkinsville. Upon inspection, Dauphin discovered that the ceiling above the church sanctuary had collapsed. No one was in that part of the building and no one was injured. The roof itself is still intact.
“(We’re) lucky it wasn’t a Sunday or there was a busy upstairs. It would be a different situation,” Dauphin said Tuesday. “There’s still a quarter of the ceiling that’s still partially suspended, so obviously that’s considered unsafe.”
Rescuers remained at the scene for about two hours and established a perimeter around the church to keep people away from the structure. The cause of the collapse remains unknown. The church board is working with its insurance company and an engineer to determine next steps.
“Until they’re able to shore up the building, it’s really dangerous to go in there and see what the cause might be,” Dauphin said.
Perkinsville Community Church was originally built in 1832. It burned down a century later and was rebuilt in 1932, according to Gloria Ballantine, the church’s chief administrator. Although regular church services no longer take place, the building is a community gathering place.
Gleesen gave yoga classes there two days a week and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was held there once a week. There are also monthly potlucks. Weddings and funerals also took place regularly.
“It’s really the only building in the village area that’s available for use, committees or any type of meeting,” Ballantine said.
Ballantine estimated that the ceiling of the sanctuary is about 30 feet high and the room itself about 50 square feet. The roof of the church was replaced about twenty years ago.
“It’s just a weird situation. When a ceiling collapses, you think, “Oh, that must be a leak. There is no escape,” Ballantine said. “It just came out, so now we have to wait and see what the insurance company says and all these people who have to be involved in this stuff.”
The ultimate goal is to fix and reopen the space, but it’s too early to estimate a timeline, Ballantine said.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to go into it,” she said. “Unfortunately, that won’t be for a while.”
While church ceiling collapses are rare, they are not unheard of in the Upper Valley. In May 2007, the plaster ceiling of the Orford Congregational Church sanctuary collapsed; and in 1992, there was a similar ceiling collapse at First Congregational Church in Woodstock, according to Valley News records.
In Perkinsville, we are grateful that no one was injured and hope that the church can soon be returned to a community gathering place.
Gleeson said the Community Hall’s windows let in natural light and its central location made it a good gathering place to hold classes. She has moved her classes online for the time being.
“Seeing the destruction of the church was obviously very emotional and sad, but I was also grateful that we were able to go out and that no services were taking place upstairs when it happened,” said- she declared. “I hope they can go back to how they were because I think there are a lot of people who have special memories of weddings, baptisms, everything that happens in church.”