Middlebury’s Congo Church is ready for its next big renovation

MIDDLEBURY — Last year at this time, members of the Congregational Church of Middlebury were staring at four major capital projects totaling a combined $2.5 million to repair and expand their majestic worship hall at 27 North Pleasant St.
Two down, two to go.
Parishioner and project manager David Hallam announced on Thursday the completion of renovations to the church kitchen, along with repair and rerouting of its Charter House sewerage system. The congregation will spend the next two years tackling the final two tasks on the list, which will be much more visible to the general public.
Those projects are the replacement of the stately granite steps that for the past two centuries have adorned the church’s Main Street entrance, and building a new, 6,300-square-foot addition onto the building.
Hallam said the church has secured donation pledges amounting to 60 percent of the $2.5 million goal. This allowed the congregation to proceed with the sewerage and kitchen upgrades. Hallam explained the church’s Charter House — which serves as a seasonal homeless shelter across North Pleasant Street from the worship hall — had aging sewerage pipes that snaked under Route 7 to the main church property. In a stroke of good fortune, the church was able to make the repairs in conjunction with a major rebuild of the nearby John Graham Court housing project. This allowed for a fix that did not require digging up Route 7, Hallam noted.
“Someone was looking out for us,” Hallam said, with a smile, alluding to perhaps some divine intervention.
In March, workers essentially gutted the church kitchen, then rebuilt it and outfitted it with commercial equipment that will better allow it turn out the 200 community lunches and 200 suppers that are prepared there each week. Those meals are available to all and are particularly appreciated by infirm, elderly and/or low-income residents.
“We needed to redo the kitchen so we could cook meals rather than serve meals made somewhere else,” Hallam said.
That kitchen project was estimated at $140,000, but came in $13,000 under budget. Those savings were applied to the sewerage project, according to Hallam.
CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF MIDDLEBURY parishoner and project manager David Hallam stands on the aging steps that lead up to the iconic Main Street building. The church plans to replace the steps in 2015 and hopes to build an addition to the north side of the church in 2016. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Next on the agenda: replacement of the church stairs, sometime in 2015, at an estimated cost of $190,000. The 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. Church leaders are looking within Vermont for new granite stairs. If not repurposed by the church in some manner, Hallam said the old stairs could perhaps be broken up and passed out to parishioners as keepsakes.
“We will try to keep (the new stairs) as historically accurate as possible,” Hallam said.
The fourth and final project, tentatively slated for 2016, will involve building what would be a two-story addition onto the north side of the church. Hallam and fellow parishioners have twice presented rough plans to the Middlebury Design Advisory Committee. Hallam said the committee has presented valuable suggestions that are being incorporated into the draft plan, which calls for the addition to house a “youth room,” four classrooms, and a multi-purpose room with a kitchenette that the church could also rent out to other groups looking for meeting space.
Project proponents realize the addition proposal will face a lot of scrutiny. The Congregational Church is one of Middlebury’s most iconic structures and sits at a prominent gateway to downtown. Its image — along with that of the Otter Creek Falls — is emblazoned on Middlebury’s municipal crest. In addition to being a popular place of worship, the church in 1806 hosted a session of the Vermont Legislature. So Hallam stressed that great pains would be taken to make the addition as historically compatible as possible with the main church. It is to feature a white HardiePlank clapboard exterior and will embrace, to the greatest extent possible, energy-efficient construction. A planned switch in the church’s heating system from fuel oil to liquid propane would allow for removal of a chimney now standing at the exterior of the north end of the worship hall.
It is primarily growth of the church’s youth programs that is driving the push for the new addition, according to Hallam.
The number of children and youth attending the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s youth and religious education programs now stands at 130. The senior high school youth group (grades 9-12) currently has 41 members, and is growing.
“We have outreach programs at multiple levels,” Hallam said. “We are an open and affirming church.”
Anyone interested in contributing to the church’s capital fund should contact Pastor Andrew Nagy-Benson at 388-7634.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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