A Tale of Two Churches

02/16/02 12:00AM By Susan Keese



(Host) At a time when rural churches are being turned into meeting halls, residences or boutiques, many of Vermont's small congregations are struggling to hold on. But sometimes survival means hard choices.

VPR's Susan Keese reports the story of two churches.


(Sound of church bells)

(Keese) On a crisp Sunday morning, parishioners are arriving at the white Baptist Church in South Newfane.

Things are looking up here. The monthly senior lunches are drawing encouraging turnouts. And while volunteers are still hauling the dishes home to wash, the church expects to have an indoor bathroom and running water soon.

Suzanne Curtis is the new part-time minister. She says attendance is up:

(Curtis) "We have 35 members if everyone shows up¿."

(Keese) Members aren't just Baptists, but protestants of all denominations, including Methodists. The Methodists came from another church a few miles down the road, where it's a different story altogether.

They came from the Little Brown Church in Williamsville, a small Victorian wooden building with a sharply pointed slate steeple. Unlike the Baptist Church, the Brown Church stands empty and silent on this winter Sunday.

For more than 100 years it was a hub of community activity in this southern Vermont village. Now its arched doors appear to be closed for good. Jane Douglas, who's active in church affairs, considers it a sign of the times:

(Douglas) "The church just isn't part of people's community anymore. It's hard when both parents work and Saturdays and Sundays are the only time they have free. So you know¿. When people move to town they just don't start coming to church anymore¿."

(Keese) It's been more than 40 years since shrinking attendance forced these two congregations to begin sharing a minister and alternating services between the two churches.

But keeping up two buildings has become increasingly burdensome. A visit from an insurance agent last spring made it clear that the Brown Church would cost a fortune to bring up to modern septic and safety standards.

Many of its members are elderly, and those that are too busy to mount a fullscale campaign to save it. Fred Jenness is a local real estate agent:

(Jenness) "The church means a lot to me. I mean, I was married there and I buried my mother and my father and my brother and my grandmother all out of that church. So I hate to see it close, but what are you going to do¿ ."

(Keese) So a few weeks ago the keys to the Brown Church were handed over to the official owner, the Troy Methodist Conference in New York State.

Other Vermont churches have also been forced to consolidate or scale back to a few services a year. Vermont's division for historic preservation administers a 50-50 matching grant program for community and nonprofit buildings. Preservationists say churches constitute a quarter of all applicants. Many small congregations have raised matching funds from non-members, who see the churches as important local landmarks.

But the future of the Brown Church remains uncertain. Back at the Baptist Church, Treasurer Jane Douglas says the obstacles to saving the other church seem almost insurmountable:

(Douglas) "Without water and sewer I don't know what they can do with it.... whether they can pick it up and move it somewhere where they can have water and sewer... We don't know."

(Sound of music from church service) "God will take care of you.¿"


(Keese) For now, everyone is singing under the same roof with the Baptists. The Troy Methodist conference has said it will work with the community to determine the Brown Church's fate. For the time being, its future remains unknown.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Susan Keese in South Newfane.
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