Communities struggle to find new uses for old churches

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copyright the Chronicle September 14, 2016

by Tena Starr

One of Vermont’s iconic images is the steepled white church that’s at the center of so many villages. But with the number of people who attend services dwindling to near extinction in some cases, the remnants of those congregations are looking at what to do with their gracious old church buildings. Somehow, most of them have been maintained, if lightly used, but that’s getting harder, too.

The First Congregational Church of Westfield stopped having services maybe ten years ago when the handful of remaining churchgoers found the meager pay for a weekly pastor prohibitive. Services there were revived in May with a new pastor, John Klar of Irasburg.

And for the past two years or so Katherine Sims of Lowell and her husband, Jeff Fellinger, have hosted a summer monthly concert series at the building, where once women made enormous batches of pies and sold them as a fund-raiser for the church, where years ago people of all ages attended lively card parties in the basement. The proceeds from the concert series go towards church repairs and maintenance.

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Lowell church gets a new steeple

Lowell Church Steeple 3

Omer Roberge (left) and stepson Brian Dodds top the new steeple of the Lowell Congregational Church with a new stainless steel cross on Saturday. Over 140 hours of work went into welding the cross, which was created by students at the North Country Union High School Career Center. Photos by Micaela Bedell

by Micaela Bedell

LOWELL — A new steeple was installed on Lowell’s 72-year-old Congregational Church building this past Saturday.

Open the doors of Lowell Congregational and you’ll find a large, diverse family, said member Becky Erdman at Saturday’s steeple raising.  But the congregation wasn’t always so big, and a new steeple wouldn’t have been possible without material donations and volunteer work from an influx of new members.

“It’s literally standing room.  We have to put chairs in the aisles,” said Mrs. Erdman of the 30- to 80-member increase in membership.

Verniece St. Onge, the longest participating member of the congregation at over 50 years, attributed the increase in membership to “young blood.”

“We’ve got a young family here with a new pastor,” she said.  “And a choir, which we haven’t had in years.  We’re just booming.  We’re full of life again.”

Mrs. St. Onge and others attribute recent membership increases to Pastor David Dizazzo.

“When this pastor took over full time there was just — I don’t know.  People were affected,” said new member Don Nolti.  “He’s a great Bible-believing, Bible-preaching pastor, which is what attracted me.”

The Lowell Congregational Church acquired a new steeple Saturday.  The process took more than four hours, and over 20 congregation members gathered to watch.

The Lowell Congregational Church acquired a new steeple Saturday. The process took more than four hours, and over 20 congregation members gathered to watch.

Lowell Church Steeple 5

A new steeple tops the Lowell Congregational Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pastor Dizazzo, who gave his first sermon in the church on January 1, 2012, calls it more of a “right place at the right time” situation.  As he watched the beginning of the installation process, he mused on the symbolism of raising a cross higher onto the church.

“It’s very symbolic to us because, as a church, the goal is to lift Jesus higher,” he said.  “As we lift him up in our own lives, on top of the church is also this stainless steel cross.”

After a new church steeple was installed on Saturday, Lowell Congregational Church Pastor David Dizazzo embraces member Omer Roberge (left) in celebration.  Former Pastor John Genco’s wife, Ruth Genco, admires the steeple, and other members of the congregation clap for Mr. Roberge.

After a new church steeple was installed on Saturday, Lowell Congregational Church Pastor David Dizazzo embraces member Omer Roberge (left) in celebration. Former Pastor John Genco’s wife, Ruth Genco, admires the steeple, and other members of the congregation clap for Mr. Roberge.

Mrs. Erdman agreed that the cross is symbolic, but took it further.

“It’s a very modern cross going onto a very conservative church building,” she said.  “And [the combination] is going to work.  Because that’s exactly what’s going on inside.”

It took more than four hours to put up the new steeple Saturday morning.  It was done by congregation member Omer Roberge and his stepson Brian Dodds.  Over 140 hours went into welding the cross that topped the steeple, a product of North Country Union High School’s Career Center.  Instructor Roger Wells led seniors Ben Duranleau and Calvin Peacock and junior Paige Gagnon on the project.

Mr. Dodds constructed the base for the steeple, and roof brackets were donated by Guay General Repair and Steel in Newport Center.   Desrochers Crane Service in Derby also donated some time and equipment.

As the 170-year-old bell of Lowell Congregational rings to announce the new addition there are smiles all around.  The church has never had a steeple, but as eight-year-old Caleb Dizazzo put it, “This church was made for a steeple.”

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