Two weeks ago, the Congregational Church sold their East Main Street building to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church for $1, the price of a cup of coffee. The transaction marks a turning point for both churches.
“We feel spiritually blessed by this donation and this opportunity,” says Liz Marshall, of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
Congregational minister Rev. Emily Heath says the decision to leave the building was a difficult one for church members. “The church was founded in 1780 and has been in Wilmington ever since,” Heath says. “But it didn’t make sense to keep the doors open for eight or 10 congregants. And the West Dover building was in better shape physically, and had a larger congregation. So the decision was made that the West Dover church would be the UCC church for the valley.”
The Wilmington Congregational Church was once the only church in town. Both the building and the group itself can trace its roots back to the town’s beginnings. In fact, the early Congregational ministers were supported by local taxes, and one of the first buildings built by early settlers was the Congregational Church, then a log structure located in the old village on Lisle Hill. The building, built with public money, also served as a government building, hosting the town’s first Town Meetings and elections. Within a few years, the log structure was torn down and a more traditional church was built.
In 1836, the village moved to its current location along the Deerfield River. A number of buildings were moved from their original locations on Lisle Hill down to the valley. The church was moved down the hill by ox-cart and “resurrected” on a site behind its current location, where Restland Cemetery now lies.
In 1871, the church was moved again, this time to its current location closer to the road. But 11 years later, in 1882, the original structure burned. In 1883, the current church was built over a period of about 10 months, and at a cost of $4,000.
Heath says church members had scheduled a meeting to vote on the disposition of the Wilmington church building on August 28 – the day Tropical Storm Irene hit and flooded the area. That put the decision on the back burner, she says. Wilmington members didn’t officially vote to join the West Dover congregation until November.
In the meantime, however, church members offered the use of their building to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
Even before the flood, St. Mary’s was already concerned about repairs that would be needed to their building, located on East Main Street between Greene’s Servicenter and Mobil Shortstop. “We didn’t know whether to fix the building or sell it,” says Marshall.
Then the flood added to their problems. “We got about a foot of water in the building,” Marshall says. “We held a couple of services in there after the flood, but after two weeks we said ‘This is crazy.’”
The Wilmington Congregational Church came to the rescue, offering the use of the building to St. Mary’s at no charge. “They were so generous, incredibly generous,” says Marshall. “There was no way we would have been able to hold things together had they not given us the space to worship.”
In November, Wilmington Congregational Church members met to decide what to do about their building. “The consensus was that we should offer it to the Episcopal church,” Heath says. “We could have looked for commercial offers and sold it, but instead we said we want it to remain a church if it can help St. Mary’s.”
But St. Mary’s wasn’t sure they would be able to afford the repairs the building would need and the ongoing maintenance, so they embarked on a study of two options – repairing their old building, or taking on the new building. With the help of the local diocese, St. Mary’s soon realized that repairing the old building wasn’t practical for them. But the diocese supported the acquisition of the former Congregational church. “As we settled in, it started to feel like ‘This is a no-brainer, we’re supposed to be in this building,’” jokes Marshall.
And Marshall notes that St. Mary’s has gone from one of the least noticeable buildings in town, to perhaps the most beautiful building in the village. The visibility has already brought people to their services. “We’ve even had people staying at the Crafts Inn come to Sunday services,” Marshall says. “That never happened at the other location.”
Marshall says St. Mary’s is planning to hold an open house to invite the community into their new church, and to thank the many volunteers who helped them during and after the flood. “We’re hoping to have a big celebration in September or October when the bishop will come down and consecrate the building. The whole town is invited.”
St. Mary’s has also welcomed a new priest, Donna Reidt, after nearly a year and a half without a priest. The church also has a new organist, Joan Mayle, because of a time conflict with longtime organist Alan Dann, who also plays for the West Dover Congregational Church. “A new priest, a new organist, a new building, and a lot of excitement,” Marshall says.