Saving the Churches of Summer
The Fond and Faithful Adapt to New Realities
Sabra Field, of East Barnard, sings a hymn with the congregation during a service last Sunday at the East Barnard Church. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Old Goshen Church in Bradford, Vt., is used seasonally. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
John Fatherley and Sally Osgood stand in the entryway of the Old Goshen Church in Bradford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Above: Bud and Polly Leavitt, of East Barnard, chat with Connie DeWitt of Pomfret, left, before the service begins at the East Barnard Church. Seven generations of the Leavitt family have attended the church. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Nancy Kennedy, left, and Vali Stuntz walk home from the East Barnard Church last Sunday. They live around the corner, just two houses apart. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
John Fatherley holds up the photograph that haunts him. It shows a dilapidated wooden building decorated for Halloween, with plastic skeletons and cloth ghosts fluttering in the frames that once held windows. But for the pointed-arch openings, the structure might be an old, forgotten barn.
“This was a beautiful church,” Fatherley said, gazing at the image of Corinth Corner Methodist Church. “I’ve been there many times and cried.”
For Fatherley, president of the preservation group Friends of the Old Goshen Church Inc., the picture serves as a warning that his church, too, could suffer the same fate.
Old Goshen, in Bradford, Vt., is one of several picturesque summer-only churches in the Upper Valley. It’s unclear how many such churches exist in the Twin States, but an informal count in the Upper Valley indicates about 10. Many were built in the 1800s, when people traveled on foot or horseback and nearly every village had a church of its own. Most started out serving the community year-round. But due to demographic shifts, declining membership and rising heating costs, they are now open just for the summer months, along with an occasional wedding or holiday.
Fatherley, 71, is a Connecticut native whose family summered in Goshen, a village in Bradford. He now lives in Massachusetts and owns a home near the church. But he attended Old Goshen Church as a child, and has been involved with it ever since. A former history teacher, he’s fascinated with the church’s past and even wrote a book about it, The Early Baptists of Bradford, Vermont and Their Christian Church in Goshen .
If someone would take his place, he’d step down from his leadership role, he said. “I need this church like I need a hole in the head.”
Still, he can’t forsake the Greek revival-style building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“There are a few of us who want to keep it going,” he said. “If we don’t take care of it, it’s going to fall into the ground.”
A National Issue
In recent years, aging church buildings around New England have become “a really critical historical preservation concern,” said Mark Hudson, executive director of the Vermont Historical Society. “Congregations are getting smaller and are caring for what are often very large and complex structures.”
Elizabeth Muzzey, director of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources, said it’s a national issue.
“Church membership in a lot of areas seems to be decreasing,” Muzzey said.“It becomes a question of maintenance, keeping them up.”
Because they were soundly built, the structures have held up, she said. “Now, they are reaching the point, at 70, 80, or 100 years old,” when repairs are becoming inevitable.
That’s the case in the Upper Valley, where several summer churches are well past the centennial mark — and some approaching their second centennial.
Back in the 1830s, there were not enough people of any one denomination in the Barnard area to establish their own church. So they banded together to found East Barnard Church, a nondemoninational congregation which today holds summer services and is listed on the Vermont Register of Historic Places. It recently found itself facing $85,000 worth of repairs after a long-unnoticed leak led to rotted timbers in the steeple.
Footing the bill was “a big deal for a tiny village,” said Karen Thorkilsen, who serves on the board of the church. They looked into historic preservation grants, but “the timing of the application process didn’t work well with the need to do the work.”
In the end, they mailed a fundraising letter to more than 200 homes. They received more than 100 replies, “a wonderful response,” Thorkilsen said.
“It’s a small village, and everyone knows the building and feels a connection to the way it is a presence here,” even if they don’t attend the church, she explained.
“Actually, it was a really reassuring event, confirming that people really care about the building.”
In Hartford, residents are looking into restoring the West Hartford Congregational Church, part of the West Hartford Village Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The work on the 180-year old building would cost about $336,000, not including water, electricity or sewer services, according to a recent estimate.
The church was initially open year round, said Pat Stark, volunteer curator with the Hartford Historical Society. It later opened sporadically for services in the summer and now and again during the year.
West Fairlee Center Congregational Church, now a summer church with 14 members, has also faced costly repairs. Organizers found a creative way to preserve the 19th-century building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Restoring the church cost about $35,000, including a $15,000 matching grant from Preservation Trust of Vermont, said Deecie Denison, who has led fundraising efforts for the church restoration. and work on the nearby West Fairlee Center Community Center. To raise the money, they asked residents to host families with children attending nearby summer camps.
About two dozen families have provided “B&Bs,” Denison said. The proceeds — about $100 a night paid by the guest families — have supported work on the community center and the church.
“A lot of people have done it year after year after year,” sometimes hosting the same families, Denison said. “We are eternally grateful.”
Last summer, after years of work, the restoration was completed. But not the fundraising.
“It looks beautiful inside. We are very proud of it,” Denison said. “Of course, we have spent all our money, so we need to keep raising money to keep going.”
‘Everybody Moved Away’
Old Goshen Church recently hit a similar milestone.
The 19th-century church was “a going concern” until the 1870s, Fatherley said. “Then, everybody moved away, and it started to fall into the ground.”
Over the years, supporters rebuffed an offer to buy the church for the timber and helped it weather a period of disuse in the 1950s. During that time, neighbors stopped in periodically to shovel fallen plaster out of the sanctuary, Fatherley said. “The church doesn’t want to go away.”
Between 20 and 40 people attend the nondenominational summer services, and the Friends group has about 70 members, most of whom live out of town. Bradford resident Sally Osgood is one of a handful of people working to keep the church intact.
“Sometimes you get discouraged because more people don’t get involved,” said Osgood, who organizes the summer services. But, she said, they’ve accomplished too much to back off now.
After decades of work, the repairs are largely completed, funded with donations and historic preservation grants. The major ticket items included stabilizing the foundation, which cost about $30,000, Fatherley said.
“What’s most satisfying is, after living here for nearly 50 years, to see it look like it does now,” Osgood said. “It’s a beautiful church.”
St. James in Sunapee was founded as a summer church by seasonal visitors and held its first service in 1898.
The Episcopal church “serves a real purpose on the lake,” for both residents and visitors, said Dick Eaton, a trustee. “It was always the focal point for many of those families and continues to pass on through generations.”
So far, they’ve been able to maintain the building, but upkeep is “a concern,” Eaton said.
“It is a concern for all summer churches because they are old, and most of them are only open 10-plus weeks, at the most.”
Blessing the ATVs
Of course, maintenance isn’t the only challenge facing summer churches. Church attendance is down overall across the country: 18.6 percent of people in the United States attended church weekly in 2010, down from 28.5 percent in 1972, according to the Association of Religion Data.
Last year a Gallup poll ranked New Hampshire and Vermont as the least religious states.
Once centerpieces of life, “churches of all kinds are kind of sidelined in this particular day and age,” said the Rev. Pam Lucas, associate conference minister with the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ. And small, rural churches are especially affected.
As rural areas lose population, many have sold their buildings to be museums, houses or businesses, she said. “All kinds of things.”
But some are adapting.
“There are churches who are saying, ‘This is our new reality, and yet, for the moment, we still have resources. We have a building. We have a community that sits around us, and how do we open our doors to respond to this particular reality right now?” she said. “The decision that smaller churches are making at this point is, ‘How can we be the most faithful congregation?’ ”
She pointed to West Fairlee Center Congregational Church.
“(They) decided a number of years ago they could be a summer church and would not compete on Sunday mornings,” she said. Instead, they hold vespers and have also “done some creative kinds of things, like blessing of ATVs and blessing of animals, to say, ‘Whatever it is you choose to do in these summer months of refreshment, may God go with you.’ ”
John Leavitt, whose family has belonged to the East Barnard Church for generations, was among about 20 worshippers at a recent service there. He’s not “overly religious,” said Leavitt, 77, but he’s been a churchgoer all his life. “I feel that it breaks up the week.”
And he wants to see the church survive.
“If people don’t go, it closes up,” he said “It’s almost experienced that in the past, and then there’s a revival, which there is now.”
Although some young people attend the church, it is mostly an aging congregation, Thorkilsen said. “For us to remain viable, we need to understand what kind of content will hold people as they look toward the future.”
It’s a challenging call, given the times.
“I think a lot of people have just given up on religion and become spiritual, not religious, as the saying goes,” she said.
To attract those who are interested in spirituality but may not want to attend church, they’ll offer a series of discussion potlucks, including a talk by Dov Taylor, rabbi of Woodstock-based Havura Ki-Tov: A Gathering for Jewish Life and Learning, about the Garden of Eden story on July 29; and a screening of Journey of the Universe on Aug. 20. Both events will be held at the community center in East Barnard at 6 p.m.
“We hope that it will reach out to a broader mix of people and open up people’s definitions of (religion),” Thorkilsen said.
In the past, the church hired a summer minister and provided him or her with a place to stay. Now, feeling the pinch of rising housing costs and ministers’ fees, they are “seeing what works, financially and spiritually,” she said.
This summer, a variety of ministers, artists and lay people will lead services, reflecting on images of God they feel resonate with the present and the future.
On a recent Sunday, about 20 people sat in the white painted benches for a service led by Betty Edson, a retired pastor with the United Church of Christ. As she spoke, birdsong breezed in through the open doors.
Because she’s “not a conservative thinker,” Edson shared her personal image of God “with some trembling and trepidation.”
Edson, who has questioned “everything but the existence of God,” described a loving presence or spirit that she feels walking near the ocean, or watching the sunrise or sunset. But, she said, there are many ways to imagine God.
“If you see God as a human being sitting on a throne and it works for you, God bless you,” she said, adding that the only time she worries is when people think their perception is the only one.
“Does it work? Does it bring forth the spirit? If so, we are headed in the right direction on this spiritual journey we all travel together.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210.