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Iconic church eyes $2.6m in upgrades

MIDDLEBURY — Members of the Congregational Church of Middlebury a few years ago celebrated the 200th birthday of their picturesque place of worship at the top of Main Street. The flock is now seeking to prepare the church for its next 200 years with a $2.6 million capital improvement plan that includes repairing the front steps, upgrading the kitchen and placing a classroom addition onto the north side of the majestic building.
“I think the projects are very much needed, and I am optimistic we (will reach the $2.6 million goal),” said church Moderator Russ Carpenter.
Dave Hallam, who with Carpenter is a member of the church’s Building Preservation Committee, said a silent phase of the fundraising campaign is already under way. The more public phase will kick off on Nov. 24, with a “Pledge Sunday” event during which church members will be invited to spread donations over three years to help the three-pronged project become a reality.
“It won’t be easy, but we think we’re going to be able to do it,” Hallam, a seasoned project manager, said of the goal.
A tentative schedule set by church leaders calls for the church steps to be repaired in 2014. The massive stone stairs have shifted and cracked through the years, creating uneven spots that can pose a challenge for parishioners who are unsteady on their feet. The cracks have gotten wider through the years with the ongoing freezing and thawing of water during the colder months.
Also slated for next year: Expansion and renovation of the church kitchen, in which 200 community lunches and 200 suppers are prepared each week. Hallam explained the church kitchen was not created for such a volume of cooking, which the congregation has taken on as part of a local, multi-faith effort to feed area folks who might not have enough to eat.
The third — and most ambitious — part of the capital plan calls for construction of an addition onto the north side of the church. That addition would comfortably house a community meeting room and classrooms to accommodate the church’s rapidly growing programs for young children and youths. The number of children and youth attending the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s religious education programs has increased from 49 to 89 during the past four years.
“Our outreach to the community has grown significantly,” Hallam said. “It has attracted a lot of people to our church as a result.”
The church’s classrooms, administrative offices, lunch program and a temporary shelter for the homeless are currently located across North Pleasant Street (Route 7) in the Charter House building. With all these functions, the Charter House — owned by the Congregational Church of Middlebury — is fairly cramped and poses an access challenge for the congregation’s youngest members.
“There has always been a safety issue regarding the children crossing Route 7 to go to church school and then back to the church on Sunday morning,” Hallam said. He noted there have been a couple of narrowly averted accidents through the years involving young pedestrians. The church has crossing guards to minimize the risk for such mishaps.
Church leaders reasoned they could reliably solve the space and safety issues by adding onto the main church building. The congregation recently hired an architect to draw up some conceptual plans for an addition, plans recently presented to Middlebury’s Design Advisory Committee. The leading concept calls for a two-story, 6,000-square-foot structure that would include six classrooms, a multi-purpose room, offices, nursery and storage space.
Hallam noted the church has already acquired the adjacent “Cobble House” property at 32 North Pleasant St. to provide enough room for the expansion project. The Cobble House currently hosts a handful of apartments, and church leaders promised to help those tenants relocate if the congregation pursues the addition. Hallam added the acquisition costs of the Cobble House could be rolled into the church’s $2.6 million campaign.
CHARTER HOUSE FUTURE
If the church addition is built, the congregation will have to decide what to do with the Charter House. Church leaders are considering the option of permanently dedicating the Charter House for use as a temporary shelter for the homeless under the auspices of the Charter House Coalition (formerly known as the Middlebury Community Care Coalition). The coalition is a nonprofit network of volunteers that currently manages the shelter and helps provide free meals to those in need.
The church has put together an informational flyer about the capital campaign, called “Growing by Grace, Building to Serve.” Local musical talents John Wallace and members of The Grift are helping put together a video to publicize the project.
Carpenter and other church leaders hope the campaign will also resonate with people outside of the congregation. After all, the Congregational Church building and the Otter Creek Falls are two iconic images that the town of Middlebury uses on its crest. And the town is not alone in borrowing those images.
“When you look at the number of Middlebury businesses that use the picture of our church to represent their business, we realize that it is not only members of our church that have ownership, but the whole town,” Carpenter said.
That said, church officials promised the addition would be designed to dovetail with the historic architecture of the main church building.
“It is not our intent to ruffle any feathers with respect to architecture,” Carpenter said.
The Rev. Andy Nagy-Benson, pastor of the Congregational Church of Middlebury, said the building addition would be available to other groups looking for spaces in which to meet.
“We have an open door for people in the wider community,” Nagy-Benson said.
While raising the necessary funds will be a challenge, it’s an enviable one to have, according to Nagy-Benson.
“This is a project that is certainly a stretch for us, but it is also a sign of vitality,” Nagy-Benson said.
“It’s a problem I guess the church has prayed for.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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