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Windsor’s Old South Church Celebrates 250 Years

  • Old South Church deacon Carl Goulet, of Windsor, Vt., greets Lisa Palmer of Windsor before the start of the Sunday service on Aug., 26, 2018. This was Palmer's first visit to the church. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Henry Compton,5, of Windsor moves to the beat while his mother Laura Compton directs the choir at the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on Aug. 26, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liza McSwain, of Windsor, Vt., hugs Sue Goulet, of Windsor before the start of the Sunday service at the Old South Church in Windsor, on Aug., 26, 2018. The church is celebrating its 250th anniversary. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The original covenant signed in 1768 hangs in the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt. The church is celebrating its 250th anniversary. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Rev. Karen Lipinczyk, left chats with church member Kathy Prevo after the Sunday service on Aug. 26, 2018 in Windsor, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • An old postcard of the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt. The church is celebrating its 250th anniversary. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Friday, September 07, 2018

When congregants gather after services on Sunday for a potluck lunch and to share memories and photos as part of the 250th anniversary of Windsor’s Old South Church, it is likely that Donna Townsend will have more memories than most.

Townsend, 88, has been a member of the church since her family moved to Windsor when she was in the fifth grade.

“It is such a beautiful church. I love it dearly,” Townsend said. “I am so happy to be part of this celebration.”

One of her fondest memories is of her time with the youth group in the mid-1940s when about a dozen young people would come together in the fellowship room on the ground floor of the church.

“I remember there was a pot belly stove in the room and the pastor at the time, Howard Paige,” Townsend said.

“We loved going. Mr. Paige was so good with the teens.”

Townsend also remembers in the winter the youth group would walk up to the pastor’s house on Ascutney Street to go sliding. “We were always doing things like that.”

Townsend’s memories are a part of the church’s rich history, which began in 1768 when the covenant establishing the church was signed by the first 10 members.

Windsor itself had been charted in 1761, and the history of the town and church are intertwined. In those early years, the congregation met in a small meeting house tucked into a corner of the property. Thirty years later, construction began on the new church, which also served as a meeting house for the public.

In her 1963 booklet titled, Heritage of the Old South Church, Windsor, Vermont, Gladys Skinner said there was scant information on the construction. Congregants likely purchased pews to raise $5,000 for the work, which began in the spring of 1798 and finished on Oct. 22 that year, though use of the church didn’t begin until 1805.

“It would appear the work of the building was largely a community project,” Skinner wrote.

Except for the 1920 addition of the front portico with columns, its exterior appearance, towering over Main Street, has not changed since 1798.

“It is believed to be the oldest church in Vermont standing on its original site and in continuous use as a house of worship,” said John Dangelo, a member of the 250th anniversary committee. He also said it is one of the most photographed churches in the state.

Dangelo and committee member Kathy Prevo said the covenant signed in 1768 began a long and fruitful church history of serving God by serving the community, near and far.

“One of the things we are very proud of is that we are part of this community,” Prevo said while standing in the sanctuary on a recent afternoon. “We reach out and help with community dinners, including one every week at the Legion that is free and open to the public. In summer we do a lunch program for kids and bring the meals to the two locations.”

The church also supports missions started by members in Ethiopia and Kenya and works with the Windsor Resource Center, a nonprofit connecting residents with social service and state agencies.

“We have collected buckets of stuff to send to hurricane victims and we send baskets of school supplies to where they are needed,” Prevo said.

The church was designed by renowned architect Asher Benjamin. He designed three other buildings in Windsor, but Old South Church is the only one that remains standing, Prevo said.

“Most congregational churches are on the town square,” Dangelo said. “They put it on Main Street because they wanted it to be very prominent. As you come into town from either direction the church stands out. It was very fortunate that Benjamin was living in Windsor at the time, because shortly after (he designed the church), he moved back to Boston.”

In the early years, the church shared a minister with a congregation in Cornish. In times of low water, he would ford the Connecticut River on horseback, Dangelo said.

Originally, the church entrance was at street level and the interior had a single floor where the congregation sat and a set of stairs led to a pulpit for the minister.

“It is a very typical New England design,” Dangelo said, referring to the Federal architectural style.

As for the name, Dangelo and Prevo are not quite sure how it came about other than to relate two theories: one said Old South Church was named to distinguish it from the Baptist church on the north end of Windsor and the other suggests a congregation member decided to make a reference to the famous Old South Church in Boston.

Around 1840, the congregation installed a new floor, creating an upstairs sanctuary and several rooms on the ground floor. Other improvements have included a wood stove in 1820, the addition of a bell in the steeple in 1842, and the electrification of the 1830s era organ in 1950. The stained glass windows from the late 1800s swing open to the inside with shutters on the outside.

An interior renovation in the late 1800s in the Victorian style replaced the pews with couches and chairs, but the congregation brought the pews back in 1920.

Despite its age, the building is “structurally in good shape,” Prevo said.

“I think we have been really good stewards of this building,” she said. “We have paid attention to it and done repairs when we could.”

Old South Church is a member of the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination based in the U.S. It has about 135 members today, which is down from about 160 in the mid 1980s when Dangelo said he joined the church. Membership was probably a few hundred during the 1800s and early 1900s, Dangelo said. “A lot more people went to church then.”

The year-long anniversary celebration has included “historic moments” from each decade since the church was founded, presented every Sunday from January to July. Just outside the sanctuary is a display of photos and articles on the church’s history.

In their research, Prevo and Dangelo came across stories from the early years that illustrate how the faith has changed.

“When the church started out theologically, it was very Calvinistic,” Dangelo said, noting those who needed to confess their sins had to do so by standing before the congregation.

“I read (in Skinner’s booklet) about a man whose house or barn caught fire and he was upset because the fire crew did not get there fast enough so he uttered a curse and had to stand up in church and confess he used God’s name in vain,” Dangelo said.

In another confession in Skinner’s book, a man had to acknowledge his wrongdoing for meeting with Baptists.

“I did not know that it was a crime in the view of Christians to go to a meeting among Baptists,” Joel Butler said on Aug. 17, 1780.

“We have evolved from being Puritans to being very liberal,” Dangelo said. “The UCC (United Church of Christ) is quite liberal and is involved in a lot of social issues.”

Added Prevo, “This is an open and affirming church, so all are welcome.”

The actual anniversary of the covenant signing is Sept. 21 with a special commemorative church service on Sept. 23. The week prior, on Sept. 16, some members will perform at a concert at the church at 6 p.m.

“Our idea was to have a concert and highlight some of the music that has been played from the past to the present,” Prevo said.

“For September, our theme is the hymn “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past and our hope for years to come,” Prevo said, reciting the first verse. “We are planning a rededication and looking toward the future.”

Another project in the works is to collect personal stories from members and possibly publish a book.

Reflecting on Old South Church’s history, Dangelo and Prevo said it has been a remarkable journey, not just for church members but for the town.

“I’m very proud of this church,” Prevo said. “We have maintained the building and we have kept our historical roots as a faithful people.”

“It starts Sunday morning at 10 a.m. and radiates from that,” Dangelo said, noting that often people who do not have a church but want a church funeral have it at Old South Church.

“I think it is fantastic that for 250 years, this church has been the rock of Windsor,” he said. “Even if you are not a member, it has touched you in some way.”

For more information on the church, Dangelo suggest people visit the Old South Church Facebook page for photos and events.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

Correction

John Dangelo is a member of the 250th anniversary committee for the Old South Church in Windsor. His last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.