Historic churches reflect the shiretown; watch the video
Middlebury Houses of Worship I: Pride of the Town. Video by Jason Zhang/Addison Independent
MIDDLEBURY— Some people get uncomfortable in houses of worship, particularly those who are uncomfortable about religion, says local history expert Glenn Andres.
“I think, except for the churchgoers, people are a little turned off by and afraid of religion,” he said. “As one of the pastors said to me, ‘Well, people don’t go into these buildings because they scare them.’ Which is interesting, because when people travel just as tourists, they do visit this stuff, and they look at it as a cultural artifact.”
The Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, with help from Andres, opened the doors of Middlebury houses of worship this month so that locals could act like tourists and get to know eight buildings that represent 200 years of religious culture and architectural history in the center of town.
“There are very few places where you can find this kind of compact collection of really good buildings,” said Andres, Middlebury College Emeritus Professor of History, Art and Architecture, who organized the tour. “These are buildings of considerable importance in some cases, and if you discount some of the elaborate buildings at the college, these are really the finest buildings in Middlebury.”
In the past, Middlebury churches have been open for public viewing, but when an arsonist left a device in the Congregational Church of Middlebury in the 1970s (thankfully there was no fire), members began locking doors whenever the spaces were unoccupied.
“The external of the Congregational church is beautiful — the interior is absolutely sublime, and people don’t see that (anymore), because they can’t,” Andres said.
Andres considers the Congregational Church of Middlebury to be a masterpiece — built by Lavius Fillmore in the first decade of the 19th century, it remains one of the most sophisticated Federal-style churches in New England.
GLENN ANDRES, WHO organized the Sheldon Museum’s Oct. 9 tour of eight historic churches in Middlebury, provides background about the extensive research he conducted before the event.
“What is your image of Main Street?” Andres said when asked about the church’s significance. “It’s looking up there at that Congregational church.”
Middlebury founding father Gamaliel Painter battled with townspeople to construct the building, and when he finally won over popular opinion, auctioned off pews to pay for its construction.
“He personally owned six pews, and they were like real estate,” Andres said. “At the time of his death, they were worth a quarter of the value of his mansion. That’s the kind of investment that people were making in this building.”
Along with the Congregational church, the tour included:
• United Methodist Church on North Pleasant Street
• St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the town green.
• Havurah House on North Pleasant Street.
• Memorial Baptist Church on South Pleasant Street.
• Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society on Charles Avenue.
• St. Mary’s Catholic Church on College Street.
• Mead Memorial Chapel on the Middlebury College campus.
Each structure has a specific significance in the town.
St. Stephen’s, consecrated in 1827, is located in the center of town on Main Street. It was the first gothic revival church to be built in Vermont.
The Havurah House helped develop the Jewish community in Addison County. The attractive 1876 home was left by the Lazarus family for Havurah.
Over time, the buildings that house these congregations did not remain unaltered.
While adapting to a changing religious culture, St. Stephen’s became more community-focused by hosting food events, day care centers and an emergency shelter in a newly built underground space.
The Methodist Church (1893) followed suit with an underground space of its own, and the Universalist Unitarian Society (2009), Middlebury’s newest house of worship, features a neutral space that welcomes all denominations and focuses heavily on social activism.
The Oct. 9 event drew fewer than 30 participants, causing Andres to worry that Middlebury residents may have missed the larger historical and cultural theme of the tour. Though the general public didn’t flock in crowds to see the churches, Andres says Middlebury’s religious communities are healthy.
“I think some of the churches in Middlebury are doing very well, but of course the people who are attending those churches didn’t come out to see them again,” he said. “Right now, if we see the ambitious projects that are going on at the Congregational church, those are to accommodate things like a thriving youth group and Sunday School. You get things like Havurah and the Unitarian church — they exist because of the dedication of these groups of people who have gathered around them, and they’re very important to their congregations.”
The self-guided walk started at the Sheldon Museum, where visitors picked up extensive pamphlets depicting the history of each church. Then visitors could walk freely from church to church, talking to well-informed hosts stationed at each location. Tickets were sold for $25.
The pamphlet will be available at the Sheldon Museum for anyone who would like to replicate the tour. While Andres says the event may be held again in the future, he’s not yet sure when.
“The people in the churches were excited about this,” he said. “We had many more workers out than we had attendees on the walk. The churches learned something about themselves — they sat around telling their stories and getting back into their own histories. They’re very proud of it.
“So it’s consciousness raising — that’s what we’re trying to do is consciousness raising.”