By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The Ripton United Methodist Church (RUMC) is a quiet place these days, but its worship hall still echoes with the roar of fiery sermons, the gentle sobs of mourners and the euphoric cheers of wedding parties.
The venerable wooden building off Route 125 in Ripton village has seen its share of history. The tiny Confederate submarine Hunley torpedoed the USS Housatonic during the Civil War as workers were painstakingly completing work on the Ripton church in early 1864. The International Red Cross was founded during that same year in Geneva, Switzerland.
Unfortunately, the passage of time has also left its mark on the church, in the form of a shifting foundation, a leaky roof and porous windows. The last substantial repairs to the building were spearheaded more than a half-century ago by none other than poet laureate Robert Frost.
“In the meantime, the interior and exterior of the church have been painted once; it has not had a great deal of care,” said Charles Billings, one of six generations of his family who have attended services at the church throughout the years.
He knows his ancestors would be pleased to see the church building preserved. His great-aunt, the late Eunice Billings, was a parishioner. Eunice Billings rented a room to Robert Frost at a time when Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus could not accommodate him. When Eunice’s husband, Homer Noble, died, she sold that home to Frost. It was in Eunice Billings Noble’s name that Frost set up a fund to make repairs to the church back in the 1950s.
Billings, one of only five remaining members of the Ripton United Methodist congregation, is working with fellow Ripton residents and the United Methodist Church in Middlebury to secure grants and donations to make the estimated $225,000 in repairs needed to make the building stable and accessible for future generations of worshippers.
Billings and other Ripton United Methodist supporters believe that if renovated, the church building will attract more parishioners and regular services. The building currently hosts sporadic events, including weddings, funerals, lectures and a very popular Christmas Eve sermon. It was only a few years ago that the Methodists held regular summer services at the classic New England church. Those services have now moved to the East Middlebury United Methodist Church.
The Ripton United Methodist is the lone remaining house of worship in Ripton; the neighboring Congregational Church building is now home to the Ripton Community House.
“It is really the spiritual center for Ripton,” resident Kathy Sullivan said of the building.
“I went there all my life,” she added. “I was married there. My grandparents’ and both my parents’ funerals were held there.”
Many residents who have not worshipped at Ripton United Methodist have nonetheless considered the building as part of the “village center” of Ripton, a cluster of buildings that includes the community house and town clerk’s office.
Fifty-five residents recently completed a survey drafted by the church congregation about the future of their building. Results showed that 96 percent of the respondents felt Ripton United Methodist should “continue in its current role as a place where Ripton families celebrate life events,” and 75 percent said they’d be willing to make a donation to help restoration efforts.
“We view ourselves as a community church,” Billings said.
With that in mind, Billings, Sullivan and other church supporters recently formed the group “Friends of the Ripton United Methodist Church.” The nonprofit organization applied for, and received, a matching grant to pay for an architectural assessment of the building.
That assessment revealed, among other things, the need for:
• Foundation restoration, estimated at $68,000.
• Roof replacement, placed at $22,000.
• Attic insulation, electrical upgrades and hot air furnace: $30,000.
• Handicap access, fire exit and installation of a bathroom: $35,000.
• Conservation of windows and doors: $12,500.
• Bell tower restoration: $15,000.
• Exterior painting: $35,000.
• Interior plaster work and painting: $75,000.
Billings noted the most pressing repairs involve the foundation and the roof.
“It was not built with a frost wall foundation,” Billings said. “The foundation has shifted so much that the windows have significantly wracked.”
The asphalt portion of the roof is now more than 35 years old, and the slate portion is more than a century old. The roof has sprung some leaks, but it cannot be repaired until the foundation work is done, Billings noted.
Once the foundation and roof work is completed, the interior work will be initiated as grants and contributions flow in.
The Rev. Jill C. Robinson of the Middlebury United Methodist Church is pleased with the way supporters have responded thus far. The effort has received a “special family contribution of $25,000,” along with other donations. Various fund-raisers will be held between now and next spring.
“The actual membership of (Ripton United Methodist) is very small, but the people who love that church is a widespread group,” the Rev. Robinson said.
Anyone interested in helping with the Ripton United Methodist Church preservation effort should call Billings at 388-1634.