Out & About: Norwich’s St. Barnabas to Celebrate Sanctuary’s Centennial

Valley News Calendar Editor
Monday, June 11, 2018

Norwich — If you’ve driven through Norwich, you’ve likely seen St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.

Located on Main Street, the gray-blue church with bright red doors has expansive ground and gardens. It also has an expansive history.

On Saturday, the congregation will celebrate the centennial anniversary of its sanctuary with art classes for children and adults, a garden party, trail dedication and concert.

“It’s a small church, but it has a ... devoted community, which isn’t just turned inward,” said Jon Felde, a member of St. Barnabas’ vestry, the council that governs the church. “It’s a lovely community and then it reaches outward.”

The congregation was started around 1834-1835 and initially met in private homes, Felde said. When Norwich University was in town, there was a strong connection with the school, and for a time the congregation met at a small chapel on the school grounds.

In 1863, it had enough momentum to build its own home.

“The building was made from a structure that had been in Orford,” Felde said. To get the lumber to Norwich from Orford, it was floated down the river.

“I assume that’s because these timbers were pretty big,” Felde said. “That must’ve been a sight.”

Things changed for the church again after a fire destroyed the university in 1866.

“When Norwich University went to Northfield, that meant that their priest went to Northfield, the choir, the organist, the Sunday school teacher ... the core of the church pulled up stakes and left,” Felde said. “It was a struggling parish.”

It was helped by Dartmouth College students who worked to rebuild the congregation.

“They would do readings and lectures and try to breathe some life into this little church that had suffered such a loss,” Felde said. Four of the students went on to become bishops in the Episcopal Church.

But even though the church building was built in 1863, it wasn’t officially consecrated by the then-bishop until 1896.

“I don’t know the circumstances why it would take so long,” said Felde, who became interested in the church’s history after moving to the area in 2014.

St. Barnabas, in its current structure, only came to be after a catastrophic event in 1917.

“The church caught fire and burned to the ground,” Felde said. “Immediately, the effort was made to build this church and the contract was signed in 1917 and completed in 1918.”

The contract also has a significant place in Upper Valley history: It was one of the first that Trumbull-Nelson built. The cost of the building was $7,575.95, Felde said. “Then there were additional costs of $568.84 for seats and extra wiring and installing the bell.”

In the years since, the church has expanded its reach. A labyrinth was created in 1998, a memorial garden was dedicated in 2000 and in 2008 it became the first Episcopal church in Vermont to install solar panels. The church also hosts Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Appalachian Trail hikers as part of the trail angels program.

“What I love about it is it’s our family,” said Jean Lawe, who has been a member of the church along with her husband since 1963. And while the congregation has changed throughout the years, “there’s always a group of people who are ready to help and be involved.”

That involvement expands far into the community.

“Because there isn’t a Jewish center in Norwich, at Hanukkah we always host a menorah on our front lawn,” Lawe said. “Reach out and interfaith outreach is what we’re about.”

Joyce Childs became a member with her husband in the 1970s.

“We liked the 8 a.m. service,” Childs recalled. “It was a plain, simple church and we just fell in love with it.”

Editor’s note: For more information about the celebration, visit https://stbvt.org/centennial-celebration/ or call 603-322-3441. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.