By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents this spring will salute the 200th birthday of one of the community’s most venerable, high-profile buildings.
The majestic Congregational Church of Middlebury — one of the town’s earliest meeting houses and a gateway landmark at its village perch at the intersection of Main and North Pleasant streets — will be feted with a series of musical events, tours, lectures and an ongoing exhibit at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History that will run through June 27.
Nancy Rucker, chairwoman of the church’s bicentennial committee, said she hopes the commemorative events will draw celebrants from throughout the region who may have passed by the church and admired its beauty and wondered about its place in Addison County history.
“A theme we have been eager to promote is that this was built as the community’s meeting house — it wasn’t simply to be a church,” Rucker said. “(A town’s Congregational Church) was almost always the largest building in town.
“Initially, it was a resource for the entire town and it was paid for by the entire town.”
Information culled from a church history compiled by the late Stephen Freeman and a “Walking Tour of Middlebury”’ by Glenn Andres indicates construction on the church building/meeting house began in 1806. The project was entirely financed by voluntary contributions from local settlers.
“It was financed by selling pews,” Rucker said, noting that Gamiliel Painter — one of Middlebury’s earliest and most colorful settlers — bought seven of the pews and insisted that others follow suit to the best of their abilities.
“He saw to it that pretty much everyone got brow-beaten into buying a pew,” Rucker said with a chuckle. “Painter was a bit of a bully when he wanted to be.”
Lavius Fillmore, who had already built three churches — including the one in Old Bennington — was chosen as the architect of the structure, which was completed in 1809 at what was then a princely sum of $9,000.
The lavish investment yielded a nice payoff. Three years of construction produced a five-tiered spire, soaring 135 feet high, designed with a flexible frame able to withstand gale-force winds — including the 1938 and 1950 hurricanes that leveled or severely damaged many other local buildings.
The building was barely roofed over when the state Legislature convened there in 1806. Parishioners organized a Sunday school in 1815, which became one of the first in New England.
Over the years, the church has maintained its high profile. It remains, along with the Otter Creek Falls, one of Middlebury’s aesthetic calling cards.
People will get a chance to get a glimpse of the church building, inside and out, with some expert commentary and music in the weeks ahead. Guided tours of the building are planned on the Saturdays of May 23 and 30, from 2 to 5 p.m.
A special bicentennial program titled “Founders of the Meeting House” is scheduled for Saturday, May 30, at 7:30 p.m. in the church. Andres and Rucker will lead a discussion on the architecture of the building and its early founders.
Festivities will also include a “Bicentennial Celebration Concert” on Saturday, May 16, at 7 p.m. The concert will feature a specially commissioned piece, conducted by parishioner Jessica Allen, that will drawn upon the church’s past and its present.
Momentum for the concert began to build last fall, when church leaders started working on a slate of activities to honor the landmark building’s 200th birthday. As the church’s music director, Allen and her choir members brainstormed ideas to appropriately mark the occasion through song. They agreed to commission a special song that would use the instruments and voices of people from both inside and outside of the congregation.
Allen’s brother, Jeremy Allen — the composer-in-residence at the Canton Symphony Orchestra in Ohio — wrote the piece, titled “A Heav’nly Gate.”
It’s a five-minute composition that notably incorporates three verses from an 1809 text that was read during the original dedication of the church building, then referred to as “the meeting house.” The text celebrates the completion of the building and gives glory to God for the accomplishment.
Allen said people hailing from Brandon to Burlington will be involved with the performance, which will feature a 15-member orchestra and a multitude of singers.
“The chorus has been rehearsing since late March,” Allen said. “Things are starting to roll.”
The composition incorporates the sounds of violin, viola, cello, strings, bassoon, oboe and percussion instruments, according to Allen. The song merges modern flourishes with the traditional “Ode, to be Sung to the Tune of Milton” by Samuel Swift to which the original dedication verses were sung back in 1809.
“In our performance we will be reflecting what happened in 1809 and then change over the commissioned (piece),” Allen said.
She is pleased with “A Heav’nly Gate,” and looks forward to conducting it at the church at the May 16 concert as well as on May 31, the actual anniversary of the dedication.
In addition to being a parishioner and the music director at the church, Allen is a voice teacher, vocal coach for the Vermont Youth Orchestra Choruses and conductor of the Middlebury College Women’s Glee Club.
“The reaction I have been getting is that this is a very beautiful, reverent piece,” Allen said. “My brother Jeremy set the text very reverently, as a prayer, in a sense, a dedication of its own.”
She is pleased her family will be able to make a special contribution to the big birthday.
“It feels personal, it feels wonderful to be party of a bicentennial celebration like this and have a family connection,” Allen said. “I also realize that you don’t know how many bicentennial celebrations you’ll be involved with in your lifetime.”