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Cost of Lebanon Baptist church’s revival mounting

  • Contractors work in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, with the goal of completing the new First Baptist Church of Lebanon by January 1. The completion of the building, a replacement for the church destroyed by arson in December 2016, is threatened by a higher than anticipated construction costs. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Alan Ashey, of Canterbury, N.H., crosses a beam at the First Baptist Church of Lebanon while building the steel structure to hold the steeple in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Ashey also worked on the rebuild of the United Methodist Church nearby on School Street after a fire in 1992. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Steel worker Alan Ashey gathers up his tools and supplies at the end of the work day at the First Baptist Church of Lebanon in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A new First Baptist Church of Lebanon rises in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019 on the site of the building destroyed by fire in December of 2016. General contractor GC3 specializes in rebuilding churches, said Michael Schmidt, senior project manager. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Steeplejacks begin to take down the burned steeple of the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., Saturday morning, December 31, 2016. The church was lost to an overnight fire on Wednesday. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/19/2019 10:20:53 PM
Modified: 10/20/2019 10:23:04 PM

LEBANON — At the corner of School and Green streets, carpenters, roofers, steelworkers and other construction tradespeople are tightening up the exterior of the First Baptist Church of Lebanon’s new home ahead of the first snow.

“Depending on the weather, we should be starting to put slate on the roof next week,” construction manager Michael Schmidt, of the Iowa-based GC3 Builders, said at the site on Wednesday. “We’re estimating by the end of the month, it’ll be closed up and we can concentrate on the work inside.”

Call it the next step in a revival for the Baptists. Almost three years ago in December 2016, a troubled arsonist destroyed the original Gothic Revival structure built in 1870.

But the next step is not the last step: Because of construction costs that outran the original budget, church leaders are appealing both to the congregation and to the wider Upper Valley community for help in raising $1 million to pay for the remaining work needed for members to resume worshipping in their own building.

“I’d say we have 11,000, 12,000 fliers that have gone out so far,” building committee chairman Steve Girdwood said Wednesday. “In addition to the congregation, we’re reaching beyond Lebanon to Hanover, Hartford, Norwich, Lyme and other communities.”

The project’s building and finance committees decided late this summer to reach beyond the congregation to tap the generosity of Upper Valley friends, neighbors and nearby churches, as well as the kindness of strangers, to reinforce the insurance settlement of $2.3 million.

Since early September, the church’s appeals have ranged from mailings and an information and donation booth at the weekly farmers market at nearby Colburn Park, to posters asking “Will You Help Us Rebuild?”

“We thought the campaign would be more in the $200,000-$300,000 range,” Girdwood said. “We did some cutting back on the specs, but after the bidding the contract cost still was more than $3.5 million. You can imagine our shock when that came in.”

Girdwood and Schmidt attribute the sticker shock to what Girdwood called “a perfect storm of circumstances,” including a regionwide building boom, tight labor market, and a spike in the cost of construction materials triggered by, among other factors, tariffs that President Donald Trump imposed on steel and various materials made overseas.

“There was a huge bump in the construction market just because of demand,” said Girdwood, a lawyer who joined the church in 1991. “That demand went crazy at the same time we were looking for contractors.”

That’s when the supply side of the equation created the kind of problem taught in basic economics classes.

“Finding enough tradespeople took some doing,” Schmidt said. “Everybody’s busy with other projects, so it’s been a struggle to find good, qualified help who were available, and that drives the cost up, too. Now that we have them, they’re meeting expectations.”

In the community

Even accounting for inflation, the amount the church is seeking from the broader community dwarfs the $50,000 that the region kicked in toward construction of a new United Methodist Church of Lebanon decades ago. That church, just across School Street from First Baptist, also required a rebuild after two young burglars, finding their way with candles, triggered a fire that destroyed the 160-year-old landmark in 1992.

“We are reaching out to American Baptist Churches USA and the New Hampshire/Vermont chapter, so we’re pursuing sources both nationally and regionally,” Girdwood said. “Locally, we’ve had one church indicate that they were planning to give us $5,000. Others have indicated a desire to support us however they can as well, once we started a campaign. We’ve got a nice base of support to draw from.”

Depending on how quickly and abundantly the support flows in, Schmidt estimated that the congregation of between 175 and 180 people — about a third of whom attend Sunday services regularly — could move in “after the first of the year.”

Meanwhile, the congregation continues to balance the fundraising effort with fulfilling its theological mission in a variety of venues. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, they worshipped for a time at the Masonic Lodge a block away — as the Methodists had in 1992 — then found a temporary home at Lebanon Middle School. This past June, the Baptists relocated to the closer-by Upper Valley Senior Center on Campbell Street.

Throughout the disruptions, the congregation continues to operate its Loaves & Fishes food pantry, which sees about 700 visits a year from needy families and individuals; to serve its monthly community dinners; and to contribute to Baptist missionary work abroad, including Haiti.

In a pastoral letter sent to congregants last week, the Rev. Rick Pinilla praised members for their support of those efforts and for “the informal tokens of generosity for those in need, like money found in Bibles of those in our fellowship who are struggling. With all of this you have also begun to give generously to the building project without any formal prompting.”

Steeple will wait

Eight months after the fire, church leaders in August 2017 presented a proposal to the Lebanon Planning Board, calling for a similar exterior style to the original and covering roughly the same amount of square footage, but with a shorter, wider sanctuary than the original.

By mid-October 2018, with a rebooted plan that allowed construction to be phased in to reflect budget constraints, the church broke ground for the foundation.

And after a wet spring this year, GC3 and its subcontractors started building momentum on the main building. The shell now visible to the public includes a steel-framed tower, facing School Street, where a spire in the style of the original structures will stand, though not right away.

“The steeple is not part of our plans to gain occupancy in the short term,” Girdwood said. “It’ll be a separate fundraising effort down the road.”

Michael Schmidt, whose company specializes in rebuilding houses of worship, has seen such growing pains before while managing the replacement of eight fire-destroyed churches during his 6½ years with the company.

“I’ve been all over,” he said. “Texas, Detroit, Mississippi, Arizona, wherever loss takes us.”

The First Baptist in Lebanon is Schmidt’s second post-arson case.

“These are always different, the most traumatic,” he said. “It’s something that’s out of their control. Accidents like lightning strikes are almost easier to understand.

“After something like this, people need time to recover,” he said.

The church found some closure in July 2018, when Anthony K. Boisvert, then 29, pleaded guilty to burning down the church, among other charges, and received a 25-year prison sentence. He also apologized in court to church members, saying, “I wasn’t in the right state of mind.”

Watching the shell of the new church take shape is hastening the healing for many congregants.

“It’s so exciting,” volunteer Carol Rataj said at the church’s temporary office on Kimball street last week while stuffing envelopes with Pinilla’s appeal letter to members. “We can hardly wait.”

To contribute to the church rebuilding fund, and to learn more, visit lebfirstbaptist.com/fundraising.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.




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