When the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast outgrew its building at 37 Miller St., members decided the best way to make more room was to liberate some wasted space created during renovations a century earlier.

Starting last summer, the building was gutted to its brick shell. Church President Marty Daniels recalled standing in the dirt cellar and looking up to the ceiling 40 feet above with colored light streaming in through colored glass windows. It was like something from World War II, she said.

The general contractor confessed to spending some days wondering if the building might collapse without its interior. But the larger feeling around the renovation was something like awe, at the size of the building and at some remarkable features that had been hidden from view.

"We all knew what was up there," Daniels said. "We knew we had these incredible ceilings up there. We knew we had these colored windows. It was like, let's do this."

The brick church was built in 1859 as a Methodist Church, not far from the Unitarian Church on Church Street (now First Church) and the Universalist Church on at the corner of Spring and Court Streets (now a private residence).

The sanctuary was on the second floor and the building had an oversized spire, reportedly to compete with the spire on the Unitarian Church, "which of course is further up the hill," Daniels said.

The spire was damaged by gales and removed in 1879. In the early 20th century, the building was carved up and gerrymandered down to a fraction of its original space.

The Methodists moved the sanctuary to the first floor as a cost-saving measure and brought the ceiling with it, installing a gambrel-shaped false ceiling that sloped down at the edges, blocking large stained glass windows on the second floor and entombing the ornate pressed tin ceiling of the original sanctuary above it.

The entire second floor was lowered and cheaply partitioned into offices and classrooms. A portion was removed to accommodate the modest height of the new sanctuary, an unremarkable Tudor-style room.

Belfast's Unitarian Universalist Church formed in 1994. A newspaper ad at the time announced its first meeting with the headline, "Have you ever been told to believe something you just can't swallow?" It went on to frame the startup church as an antidote to the prescriptions of traditional religions, a place where members could "work out their own beliefs with other open minds in a shared spirit of exploration."

"There's no doctrine or creed," Daniels said. "God doesn't take the form it would in most Christian faiths." To the extent that members embrace the idea of higher power, it might manifest as nature or "the source," she said.

The church spent its first five years as a nomadic congregation. Membership, about 40 in the early years, jumped when the congregation bought the Miller Street building from the Methodists in 2001 and went up again about five years ago when the church got its first full-time minister. Today there are 130 members.

Daniels said space has been tight for about five years. Members talked about building a wing on the side of the building. Ultimately they went for the harder but more inspiring option, restoring the building to what it had once been.

Members raised $890,000 to gut the building, insulate the walls, repair a rotted truss in the attic, rebuild the interior with offices and classrooms on the ground level, and relocate the sanctuary to the second floor with a new elevator-style lift for handicapped accessibility. Helping Hands Family School, a local preschool, will share space with classrooms on the first floor.

The congregation moved out last July and has been holding services at East Belfast School. Daniels noted that attendance has held steady despite not having use of the church, and even increased after the election, which she chalked up to anxiety within the predominantly liberal-progressive congregation.

Daniels said the first priority is to finish the ground-floor offices, preschool space and classrooms for the roughly 40 children of church members, of whom 20 to 25 attend on any Sunday.

The church is planning a joint service June 11 with UU congregations from Ellsworth and Castine. Belfast UU members got a preview of what that might be like during an open house in April when their choir performed in the unfinished sanctuary.

"The sound is so amazing in this building," Daniels said. "You could hear it in the whole building, it was just beautiful."