St. Stephen’s ceiling repairs well under way

MIDDLEBURY — Repairs to the ceiling in the worship hall at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the green in Middlebury are nearing completion.
It was only a month ago on Dec. 5 when Liz Cleveland, coordinator for lectors and intercessors at the church, and St. Stephen’s organist George Matthew were in the building discussing heating when they were interrupted by a loud noise from within the sanctuary: One of the beams supporting the ceiling had fallen.
The damage to the ceiling, which didn’t affect the roof, prompted the church to hold services in the basement, as well as in neighboring buildings.
But now almost four weeks have passed since Structural Energy Corp. started working on the damaged ceiling and the work is coming along well. Caleb Burkle, an employee of the company, estimated on Tuesday that it would take about another two weeks or so of reinforcement before the work is complete. Because the ceiling was drafty, Burkle said, SEC is putting in more insulation. In the long run, heating the building will be more efficient and the costs will also stay lower, he said.
SEC has shored up the rafters with new brackets to ensure there will be no future issues with the ceiling. Louis Nop of Nop’s Metalworks in Middlebury custom-made the brackets used in this restoration.
Standing at the back of the sanctuary and looking at the front of the church this week, one could see SEC’s towering scaffolding reaching 36 feet up to the ceiling. A piece of the beam that caused all of the damage in the first place lies inconspicuously on a back pew.
The ceiling looks good, but it’s hard for a layman to tell exactly what SEC is doing up there. Located in the back of the church is a doorway that leads to some stairs. After ascending the three flights of narrow stairs, one enters a small, dark room with a small opening that leads out into an area in between the outside roof and the top of the ceiling. Here is where the more intense work takes place. When asked if the work is difficult, Burkle said that the labor itself isn’t hard but working where there are safety hazards poses challenges. The work, he said, takes longer since workers must be careful.
Left to be completed still are the finishing touches, such as the trim, plaster and staining. But The Rev. Susan McGarry, the rector of the church, said that the estimated date of being back in the sanctuary is Jan. 19. In the meantime, the church services have been held in the hand-dug basement of the 187-year-old building. McGarry said that in order to make the basement more welcoming, they set up chairs in a circular arrangement with a center aisle. The room was definitely more intimate due to the size, but the only real challenge was for the musicians, who had to work with the poor sound quality that the ceiling in the basement gave.
“We had wonderful help from our neighbors,” McGarry said, referring to the Middlebury United Methodist Church, the United Congregational Church of Middlebury, and the Town Hall Theater, all places that opened their doors to St. Stephen’s.
St. Stephen’s officials are not sure of the total cost of the repairs, but they estimate the church will end up paying less than $10,000 after receiving an insurance payment.
The church and SEC are really focusing on the safety of the new ceiling. They want to ensure the safety and well being of the community members who visit the church for religious services, meetings and other town events held there in the future. Burkle said that won’t be an issue.
“We want people coming in and feeling safe,” he said.

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