JUST a year and a half ago, sheets of flame engulfed a 136-year-old Congregational church here, leaving nothing but smoldering ashes and a shocking ``hole in the sky'' where the steeple had been. On a recent Saturday, the hole was filled again. Cheering broke out among several hundred onlookers as a towering 22-ton steeple - a replica of the original - was lifted by crane and set on top of the rebuilt Old South Union Church. For parishioners and townsfolk alike in this town just south of Boston, the engineering feat symbolized their triumph over despair. Their impressive show of unity resulted in the quick reconstruction of the edifice, first built in 1853.
``We lost a little wood, we lost a little steel, but what did we gain? We discovered an invisible bond between the church and the community,'' said longtime member Chester Kevitt, who wiped tears from his eyes as he watched the crane hoist the 73-foot steeple into place. ``With all the trouble in the world, it's uplifting to know that beneath all that despair is a whole layer of good.''
Within one hour of the May 1989 fire, caused by a heating gun used to remove paint during renovation work, the bank across the street set up a special fund and donated $5,000. A few days later, a nearby Roman Catholic church established a fund.
``The community enthusiasm and outpouring has been overwhelming,'' said Paul Baharian, co-chairman of Old South's funding-raising and publicity committee. A letter sent out last spring to local businesses drew more than $21,000, he said. Old South, a member of the United Church of Christ, ``is perceived as a community focal point and landmark - that's why the community has pitched in to the extent it has.''
The members themselves organized auctions, bottle drives, dances, band concerts, and golf tournaments to raise money. To date, about $1 million has been donated or pledged. The cost of the new structure, including a pipe organ, is $3.8 million. With insurance covering $2.6 million, the present shortfall is $200,000.
Despite the crisis, ``it's been a very positive year,'' said the Rev. Terry Martinson, minister there since 1972. ``The meeting house was destroyed, but the `church' was untouched. Our ministry hasn't slowed up at all.'' Worship services were held in the adjoining brick fellowship hall and education wing. Mr. Martinson hopes that by Christmas the new building will be in use.
On the morning of the steeple raising, people of all ages mingled on the church lawn.
``The kids love this church,'' said 16-year-old Ann Bader, a member of the youth group, which includes many young people from other denominations. ``They don't come just because their parents make them either - they come on their own,'' she said.
``This church really pulled me through a lot,'' said Scott Menice, 24, standing next to Ann. ``If you ever needed somewhere to turn, you could always go to the church.''
The massive rebuilding project attracted new members - and even brought back those who hadn't attended for a long time.
Rosemary MacKay, co-chairman of the rebuilding committee, felt the congregation gained ``a recognition of what is precious. Church is more than a building ... It's people coming together out of faith in God, to be there for one another ... to share faith and love.''
Eunice Kohler, the church bell ringer, is looking forward to again ringing the one-ton bell that was salvaged from the fire and is now hanging in the new steeple. She helped write some 2,000 thank-you notes to donors.
The experience ``has brought us closer to God - it has me, anyway,'' said Mrs. Kohler, sitting in a lawn chair, clutching her camera. ``You realize, as the Bible says, `all things are possible to God' - only believe.''