By JOHN FLOWERS
EAST MIDDLEBURY — When Irene Piper was a child, you knew there was a crisis in the community when someone rang the bell in the East Middlebury United Methodist Church (UMC). Citizens would converge on the 1849 worship hall, discuss the problem at hand, and work together to solve it.
“The church was the center of the community,” said Piper, now 68.
The site around which people rallied for each other was itself recently in need of help — and as usual, the people of the community have come through. Parishioners are celebrating the completion of more than $78,000 in repairs to the East Middlebury UMC, repairs they hope will assure the building another 160 years of uplifting gatherings at the intersection of Routes 116 and 125.
THE EAST MIDDLEBURY United Methodist Church is capping more than $70,000 in repairs that have beautified and increased comforts within the 160-year-old building at the intersection of Routes 116 and 125.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“People are stopping all the time to take pictures,” Sarah Wakefield, chairwoman of the East Middlebury UMC’s board of trustees, said as contractor Danny Ahearn was performing final touch-up work on the church’s bell tower early this week. “This building is not only important to the church itself, but to the community as a whole.”
Work on what would become the church began in 1845. Organizers of a “Universalist Meeting House” sold pews at $20 apiece to generate revenues for construction work. Helpers were paid $1 per day, or $2 per day if they had oxen. The building was completed in 1849, according to a church history penned by Jessie T. Fenn. The owners of the meeting house had trouble raising funds to improve the structure and voted during the 1860s to allow the Methodists to use the building for $75 per year. The Methodists ultimately acquired the building, which has maintained a majestic, though rustic, charm. Parishioners have attended services through the years under some challenging conditions; the building has never been plumbed, has been devoid of restroom facilities and has never had central heating.
The lack of such amenities, along with substantial maintenance issues, prompted church leaders to consider a major building project earlier this decade. The first plan called for construction of a new building adjacent to the church that would have housed restrooms, a kitchen and a large multi-purpose room for hosting church/community events and Sunday School activities.
“Some of the older (members) of the church felt it was important that we have Sunday school for children, and have a building to be able to have church dinners, Christmas bazaars and that type of thing,” Wakefield said.
Parishioners worked for several years toward the goal of putting up a new building. But as time went by, support for an additional building waned.
“Some members of the congregation felt that there wasn’t a large enough membership to support building the building and supporting it after it was built,” Wakefield explained. “Because the numbers of our congregation had dwindled and because we weren’t getting enough children to support a Sunday school, we took a final vote, and the (new) building was voted down.”
That vote took place around a year and a half ago. Parishioners then turned their attention to respectfully improving the historic church building. They drew up a series of tasks, including installation of a chemical toilet, repairs to the slate roof, creation of an emergency exit with stairway on the south side of the building, establishment of a woodshed to hold logs to feed the two new woodstoves recently purchased to heat the church, and repairs to, and painting of, the church sanctuary, exterior wall, belfry and cupola.
Capping off the project, which will be showcased at an open house set for 3 to 5 p.m. on July 26, will be a new church sign currently being made.
The facelift and new facilities have been heartily embraced by the 25-40 people who continue to faithfully attend services at the East Middlebury UMC. The church will be warm and toasty in the winter and those who need to use the restroom in an emergency will not have to go to a neighbor’s home.
“I think everyone is pretty much thrilled,” Wakefield said, adding that all of the renovation funds were raised within the parish and community at large.
“We have a lot of generous people in this congregation,” she said, noting the church recently received an anonymous donation of funds for new carpeting, which will be installed this fall.
Piper has been attending the East Middlebury UMC since she was five years old. She’s pleased to see the familiar landmark get some much needed TLC.
“There are a lot of memories in there,” Piper said.