Salisbury Church is winning ‘steeple chase’

SALISBURY — The 25 members of the Salisbury Congregational Church routinely find solace and affirmation in the Bible. And when it comes to their latest effort to repair the steeple of their historic place of worship, Galatians chapter 6, verse 9, must seem particularly a propos:
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
Exhibiting the patience of Job and playing the role of David to state government’s Goliath, leaders of the church have successfully capped a more than two-year effort to secure clear title to its parsonage property that will soon be sold to help raise more than $130,000 to repair the majestic steeple that caps the 176-year-old building off Maple Street.
“It’s been a prolonged crisis,” said Glenn Andres, a 40-year member of the church and a renowned local historian who has been a leader of the steeple renovation effort.
The Salisbury Congregational Church and its graceful spire have overlooked what Andres calls the “Highway Seven” valley from Salisbury village’s highest point since 1838. The structure was one of three built by Asahel Parsons, who was also responsible for Middlebury College’s Old Chapel and the former Middlebury Methodist Church that was destroyed by a fire in 1891. Andres’ research indicates that Parsons acquired the general design for the Salisbury Congregational Church from Ammi B. Young, who designed the Vermont Statehouse and went on to become architect to the U.S. Treasury Department.
“By the 1850s, (Young) was one of the most important architects in America,” Andres said.
Parishioners of the Salisbury Church have taken great pride in the building, which is included on the National Register of Historic Places. The congregation has, since the 1950s, repaired the church spire three times. A hurricane in 1950 tore the steeple from its tower and sent it crashing through the roof to pierce the floor of the sanctuary below. Friends of the church from the Lake Dunmore community rallied to raise money for repairs, among them nationally renowned cellist and summer resident Elsa Hilger, who performed locally to contribute to the fund drive.
During the 1970s, church officials discovered that pigeons had left several feet of their droppings in the belfry, to the extent that the feces were impeding the ringing of the bell. A dedicated parishioner dug up the droppings and loaded them into feed sacks that he carried down via precipitous ladders inside the tower. Unfortunately, cleaning out the droppings was only the beginning of the needed repairs.
“The acids in the pigeon droppings had rotted out the timbers,” Andres explained, which led to another renovation.
Then, during the 1990s, leakage in the tower’s sheathing at the clock level led to additional timber repairs that have proved insufficient, according to Andres. Moisture has permeated into the spire timbers, causing rotting that needs to be addressed once again. The wet spring of 2013 led to water pouring into the church sanctuary, bringing down the ceiling. Church leaders commissioned some emergency repairs that have resulted in portions of the interior being adorned with what Andres called some “very unsightly” bands of black roofing paper.
So church leaders put out the call for some “angels” to once again donate to the steeple repairs. The congregation has also received a $20,000 state grant through the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation and a $5,000 assist through the Walter Cerf Fund to help defray costs. Church officials had been banking on another revenue source to put them over the top: The sale of a former parsonage on a small lot that the late Alan Farwell — a summer parishioner — gave to the church in 1984.
The three-bedroom parsonage, located at 1941 West Shore Road, is not conveniently located to the church and only hosted a pastor for a few years, Andres noted. The congregation has since been renting out the parsonage in hopes of covering maintenance expenses and property taxes. But the property in recent years has ended up costing the church money, making it a logical asset to sell for the benefit of the steeple project.
“The last thing we need is a financial albatross like this,” Andres said.
But wait.
Farwell, now deceased, willed the parsonage property in a manner that called for it to pass on to the state of Vermont should the church ever seek to divest itself of it. Surmising that the state did not have a use for the property, church officials asked the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services for a quitclaim deed to the property in order to sell it for the church’s benefit.
Not so fast.
Attorneys representing the state voiced concern that relinquishing claim to the parsonage would be aiding a religious organization and therefore breach to the Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state.
This unleashed a months-long battle/negotiation to clear the property for the church to sell. Andres and others enlisted the help of the Division of Historic Preservation and local lawmakers, including Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, and state Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, and Christopher Bray, D-New Haven. Together, they were able to convince Buildings and General Services to relinquish the property to the church. It’s a move that had to be endorsed by the state Legislature this past May, as a rider on no less than the state’s capital bill (H.864).
“As soon as we get the quitclaim deed, we will put (the parsonage) on the market,” Andres said. The home will need some work, including better insulation. Leaders have not yet decided whether to make repairs before putting it on the market, or sell it as a fixer-upper.
“It would make a great starter home,” Andres said.
Meanwhile, the congregation has retained Jan Lewandoski, whose specializes in historic preservation projects, to make repairs to the Salisbury Congregational Church tower. Ideally, the project would be more smooth and cost-effective if a crane were employed to hoist the tower from its perch onto the ground for the renovations. But Andres explained the tower is affixed to the building in a manner that will not allow it to be detached. That means extensive scaffolding will need to be erected around the tower, adding to costs and the repair timeline.
“That was a huge disappointment,” Andres said.
Still, parishioners are thankful to have broken a bureaucratic logjam that will allow for the tower to be repaired and preserved. Plans call for work to be done this fall and assure the church will be enjoyed by future generations. Andres notes that while the current congregation is small and served by a part-time pastor (The Rev. John Grivetti), the building routinely draws scores of area residents for around 20 non-religious events each year, including a free concert series and gatherings of the Salisbury Historical Society and Lake Dunmore Association.
“This is a community landmark,” Andres said proudly.
Anyone interested in contributing to the Salisbury tower project should send their checks to the Salisbury Church, P.O. Box 61, Salisbury, VT 05769.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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