Repairs signal new era for historic Ripton church

RIPTON — The temporary din of hammering, scraping and painting will soon give way to the once-familiar sounds of orating and hymn singing at the Ripton Community Church (RCC), which is in the final phases of a multi-year project to restore the historic building’s role in the town’s spiritual and social fabric.
The building was erected in 1864 as the Ripton United Methodist Church. It has hosted generations of Ripton residents, including the late poet Robert Frost, who spearheaded a previous renovation of the building more than a half-century ago. The church is part of a clustered trio of landmark buildings off Route 125 in Ripton Village that also includes the old meeting house and the town offices (formerly Ripton’s two-room school house).
A lack of plumbing and access for disabled citizens has, in recent years, relegated the church’s use to sporadic events and a popular Christmas Eve sermon. But a committee, led by resident Charles Billings, has spent the past three years fund-raising for some major repairs that are putting the RCC back into more regular service and under the leadership of its own pastor. The RCC in July will be reducing its ties with the Middlebury and East Middlebury United Methodist Churches, which has historically provided pastoral services and guidance to the small Ripton congregation.
“I think (Frost) would be proud that this work is continuing and that this church is still a viable entity,” Billings said on Monday as he admired the physical resurrection of the church in which six generations of his family have worshipped.
The repairs have been steady and incremental, thanks to the committee’s ability to secure grants and community donations.
It all began with the massive church building being raised to allow for the foundation to be leveled and converted entirely to stone. Previous improvements had incorporated concrete into the foundation, which subsequently cracked. Workers also improved drainage around the building to make it less susceptible to the freezing and thawing cycle that can take a toll on older structures.
Work on the chimney area revealed some deteriorating beams that were replaced.
Once the building was stabilized, workers installed a new10-foot-by-26-foot addition at the rear of the church that is accessible to the disabled. The addition includes a restroom and running water, made possible through connections to an on-site well and the town office septic system next door. This means the church-goers need no longer use washroom facilities in neighboring buildings.
A small meeting room and furnace space are also located in the new church addition.
Other work either accomplished, or in progress, include extensive electrical rewiring; shelving for what RCC officials hope will become a headquarters for the town historical society and some of the communities historical archives; interior plaster work; and replacement of the current asphalt roof with a durable standing seam variety. Committee members had considered installing a slate roof to match what had existed when the church first opened in 1864, but they determined that the weight of such material would place too much stress on the building’s support system.
Work on the roof is scheduled to begin in about a month, according to Billings, followed by a thorough paint job.
The $200,000 worth of repairs will allow the RCC to open its doors even wider to a host of religious, educational and entertainment gatherings.
Indeed, church activities have ramped up this year even while work has been ongoing.
A calendar of events for 2011 shows the church already hosted a religious service back in March, two lectures in April, and a sermon and a talk by Ripton resident and Middlebury College student Tik Root in May.
Future events to be hosted by the church will include a talk by Jeffersonian scholar Chip Stokes on June 18, a townwide yard sale on July 2, an art exhibit on Aug. 28, and a Fall Harvest Concert on Oct. 16.
While the latest repairs will put the church back into regular circulation, the committee is thinking ahead to some other, less pressing upgrades that could be done in the future. For example, the church belfry needs to be restored and the Billings would like to someday see the building’s choir loft reopened. Some windows also need to be replaced.
But those things can wait for now.
“We are certainly feeling like we are at a point where we can take a few years off,” Billings joked.
There are some administrative matters that need more immediate attention. Brigid Farrell, Vermont district superintendent of the United Methodist Church of New England, is helping the RCC in its search for a pastor. Church members are optimistic they will have a pastor in place this summer.
Meanwhile, Middlebury and East Middlebury United Methodist Churches will soon bid farewell to its pastor, the Rev. Jill C. Robinson, who is taking the reins of a church in Lebanon, N.H. The Middlebury and East Middlebury congregations will welcome a new leader this summer.
Ripton residents have watched the RCC improvements with interest during walks, visits or while traveling through the village.
“It is an inspiration when I drive by,” said RCC parishioner Roger Barkin.
“The potential here is phenomenal.”
He added Billings deserves a lot of credit for leading the church restoration effort.
“I have never seen anyone go so doggedly after a project,” Barkin said. “We thought Robert Frost put Ripton on the map. Charles has put Ripton back on the map.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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