Some New England churches are having big trouble keeping their pews full and their doors open. But an historic meeting house in Lyndon is getting reborn as a community center thanks in part to inmates from a nearby correctional facility.
In the bright sun of a winter afternoon, what was once the First Congregational Church stands tall again.
It still needs a coat of paint, but the steeple isn’t falling over any more, the foundation is shored up, and the interior has been completely redone. This once decrepit building is being rescued by volunteers who call themselves the “Upright Steeple Society,” under the leadership of a retired lawyer named Jim Gallagher.
“Daily I would drive by the church on my way to work, driving down York Street, thinking to myself, ‘Somebody ought to do something about that.’” Gallagher recalls.
“Because the church was in sad shape, it hadn’t been used for many, many years; it hadn’t been painted in many, many years," he says. "The steeple had started to lean, and you could tell that it wasn’t going to be with us much longer if something didn’t happen.”
What was crumbling was not just an architectural landmark. It was a hallowed place where families gathered for weekly worship and socializing. They cried together at marriages and funerals. But as an interstate divided the community, the congregation drifted elsewhere. Only two members remained. One is an energetic 65-year-old named Frances Taylor. Her family tried hard to keep the doors open.
“And the money we had left wasn’t enough to keep going. Daddy put a furnace in there and we used to have card parties once or twice a week to get the money just to do that,” Taylor remembers.
Then about 10 years ago, her father died.
“And we couldn’t have his funeral there, and it made me crazy, it just made me crazy. And I said to my husband, 'I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but something’s got to give, you know?'” she says.
Something—rather, some people—did give. A lot.
Taylor put a call for help in the mail and former parishioners and current neighbors and friends answered, buying stamps with $200 from her husband without telling him what the loan was for. Families who used to worship in the church attended a meeting to help save it, sitting in pews they had had occupied a long time ago.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Taylor says. “Then somebody ... started to play the organ, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
The group moved to a nearby grange hall to plot strategy. Lawyer Jim Gallagher suggested they form a non-profit, and open a new chapter not as a religious institution, but as a community center.
The aptly named Upright Steeple Society has been writing grants and donating money and time for six years. John Emery volunteered to supervise construction, which has been extensive. So far, $350,000 has been raised and spent to restore a landmark in this hardscrabble town.
“I’m a fixer. You can fix anything if you have the will and the time and the money, so we’ve come, we think 75, 85 percent of the way,” Emery says.
One of the reasons the money has gone farther than you might expect is that a lot of this reconstruction work has been done by inmates at the Northeast Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury. Emery says they have been skilled, reliable, and trustworthy. Paul Trucott, a work camp supervisor from the corrections department, says the crews have gained as much as they have given.
“I’d show up on the job quite a few times and they had to go show me what they did. So you see the pride factor, just the acknowledgment of somebody saying, 'Nice job,' either from the church or a work leader, or myself saying, you know, 'That looks very nice,'” Trucott says.
The plan is to turn the former house of worship into a venue for family and arts events. “You have to have that,” Taylor says, "to hold onto community." Before the historic pipe organ can make music again, the Upright Steeple Society needs to raise another $100,000 – maybe less, if their luck holds – and figure out how to remove exterior lead paint safely.
But now that they’ve kept the steeple from toppling, they figure those are reachable goals.