MONSON, Mass. – The town's oldest church had lost its steeple twice before.
It happened first in a windstorm in the 1880s, then again in the hurricane of 1938.
So when a tornado tore off The First Church of Monson Congregational's steeple on June 1, 2011, the pastor knew rebuilding already was a tradition.
"We can look back and say, 'The church has been through a lot in its history and we're going to get through this,'" the Rev. Bob Marrone said Wednesday.
Across Massachusetts, three people died in the storm that also left $200 million in damage to insured property in its wake. In Monson, First Church became a disaster relief center in a town where 40 families lost their homes.
The kitchen of First Church, a member of the United Church of Christ, turned into a hub where volunteers served 30,000 meals to tornado victims in the weeks after the storm. Sunday school classrooms became space where people could donate or collect free clothing and household supplies.
Without electricity after the tornado, the church also became a place for residents to swap news. People shared tidbits about which house to head to for cold milk or where to go for showers that also were sometimes cold, church music director Michael-Thomas Gilman said recently.
"We went to bed at dark and got up at dawn. It really brought the town together. It really was a Norman Rockwell moment," he said.
A year later, First Church's steeple still is missing. The organ still needs a $30,000 cleaning to purge dust and plaster deposits.
But some physical damage to the structure already is fixed. And Marrone says the congregation of about 360 people also is rebounding when it comes to their spiritual side. Ranks of the faithful even grew by about 15 members after the tornado. This year, the congregation also will mark 250 years since the church's founding.
Construction of a new steeple starts in July and should finish by Christmas, church board of trustees chair Suzanne Kelley said. The project will cost $2 million, and insurance will cover it.
The church will host an ecumenical prayer service for congregants and the public on Saturday. Pastors from other Monson churches and from a nearby town are expected to join in, as they did at a prayer service on the day after the tornado.
"Right after the tornado there were a lot of people wondering, 'Why would God do this?'" Marrone said.
A year later, the pastor said he'll ask service participants to remember what's happened since the storm.
"Part of it," he said, "is to look back and remember that God was with us and will continue to be with us."