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Lawsuit blocks Cornish church from dissolving

  • Frank Ackerman, of Cornish, won a judgement in Sullivan County Superior Court to keep the United Church of Cornish open after church members voted last March to close as its pastor of 33 years, Dale Nicholas, was set to retire in May. Ackerman was photographed at the church in Cornish, N.H., Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/26/2020 10:03:09 PM
Modified: 12/28/2020 10:07:11 PM

CORNISH — After around 20 years as a member of the United Church of Cornish, Duane Churchill knew that the small congregation was struggling.

Attendance and involvement were down, and members of the aging congregation were slowly dying off.

Even so, he was surprised when three of the church’s leaders and most active members voted to close the church at a meeting on March 22.

“My guess is that they just didn’t feel like there was enough interest or people to keep it going,” Churchill said.

The United Church of Cornish is the last active congregation among the four early churches built in Cornish, and while it has been on hiatus, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic and partly because of the March vote, an effort is underway to keep it open.

A group of church members met this month and have set another meeting date on Feb. 6 at the town offices to elect new officers and to discuss how to move forward.

“There are people whose hearts need the contact with the church,” said Cornish resident Peter Burling, a former town moderator and legislator in the town of 1,600.

Burling is not a member of the United Church of Cornish, but about 35 years ago he purchased and restored Trinity Church, a white-clapboard landmark on a bluff near the Connecticut River. What’s missing is the ability to finance their upkeep, given a small and aging population, he said. Trinity Church now belongs to the town. The Baptist church in Cornish Flat is now called the Meetinghouse, and the town’s First Congregational Church became a Methodist church, then a Grange hall and then the town offices.

Its congregation merged with the Congregational church to form the United Church in the mid-1950s.

The March vote to close the church was brought forward by the Rev. Dale Nicholas, who had been pastor in Cornish for 33 years until her retirement in May, William Balch, the church’s moderator, and church treasurer Marjorie Fletcher.

A woman who picked up the phone at Fletcher’s home, where Nicholas has been living, said, “I’m sorry. We have no comment.” Messages left for Balch last week were not returned.

The vote might have stood if not for parishioner Frank Ackerman, who filed suit in Sullivan County Superior Court in May.

In his complaint, Ackerman said church officials were asked to postpone the vote, so members who were concerned about the coronavirus could attend in safety. More importantly, he argued that the vote was improper, because only seven members of the church were present. The church’s bylaws require eight people in attendance to conduct any business.

Ackerman prevailed in court. Judge Brian T. Tucker issued a preliminary injunction this summer preventing the church from closing while the case was argued, then ruled on Nov. 13 that the vote to close the church was void by lack of a quorum.

While the church has had its struggles, the effort to close it was unwarranted, Ackerman said. “I think we have enough folks that want to keep the church,” Ackerman said in an interview.

Churchill voted against closing the church. The effort to close it surprised him.

“They’ve been supportive and they’ve kept the church alive,” he said of the officials who brought the vote forward.

Last winter, the church put out a notice in Cornish Connect, a newsletter in town, saying that if it couldn’t rally more volunteers, it would have to end its tradition of pot roast dinners, a key fundraiser for the church since they began in 1978.

“Like most small churches, we struggle to survive,” Nicholas told the Valley News in January.

“This is the major fundraiser,” Balch said back then. “We’d still try to go on, but it’s getting tough.”

In an interview with the Valley News in 2017, Nicholas was asked how she imagined the church in 30 years.

“I believe we will still be here because Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church,” she said. “I do hope that many more younger people will find the church an important part of their lives.”

While the numbers and the finances seem bleak, Ackerman has a list of 20 active and 30 inactive members of the church who he thinks can form the spine of a reinvigorated congregation. And the church has a trust fund of around $380,000, which provides sufficient investment income for necessities.

With a slate of new officers, the church should be able to resume holding services, most likely with visiting or lay readers in place of a pastor, Ackerman said.

When Churchill decided he wanted to attend church in his hometown around 20 years ago, he found a welcoming community in the United Church of Cornish. But the congregation has steadily dwindled. He was reluctant to lay responsibility for that at the feet of church leaders.

“I don’t want to hurt her feelings,” he said of Nicholas, who has been very supportive of him. “I just don’t want to see the church get shut down.”

Worshipers from Cornish attend churches in Windsor, Plainfield, Claremont and beyond, and perhaps they could be encouraged to attend services in their own town, he said.

Residents contributed $50,000 in donations toward the repair of the church’s steeple several years ago, and Churchill said he’d like to see the church return the favor and be of service to the town.

“I’d like to have an active church in town,” he said. “I hate the thought of God being out of business in Cornish.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.


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