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St. Stephen’s church invests in final resting places

MIDDLEBURY — St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church is marketing space within its historic building in an effort to raise money for sorely need repairs.
The future tenants won’t take up much room. They won’t be seen, heard, nor will they even draw breath.
That’s because they’ll be deceased, having been reduced to ashes and placed in one of 286 separate niches in a new columbarium recently installed in the chapel of the wonderfully inviting church on the town green that for the past 192 years has served as a spiritual hub for generations of Middlebury area residents.
A columbarium is a compartmentalized structure used for storing individual cinerary urns. St. Stephen’s during the late 1990s became the first church in the county to install a columbarium within its building. That columbarium, ensconced in a nook within the church foundation, offered 32 secure spots in which parishioners could store their mortal remains in perpetuity.
Those initial, limited slots were quickly snapped up. The urns are positioned in a tough-to-access sliding drawer that fortunately doesn’t have to be opened much these days. An adjacent memorial garden creates colorful, respectful ambiance for those who repose in the inconspicuous stone chamber.
Now church leaders are fielding inquiries from additional folks whose final wish is to make St. Stephen’s Church their final resting place.
Members of the congregation’s facilities committee — including Junior Warden Tom Klemmer — saw the potential addition of new columbarium space not only as a desirable amenity, but as a potential revenue source to whittle away at an estimated $2 million in St. Stephen’s upgrades that have had to be delayed due to lack of funds.
“We thought about it, and did some research on it,” Klemmer said of the second columbarium.
“A lot of us saw this as a way to bring new income to the church.”
The committee’s research efforts and an ensuing design/negotiation process lasted 18 months and culminated in a purchase from Minnesota-based Eickhof Columbaria. The St. Stephen’s columbarium is a free-standing structure endowed with 143 distinct compartments, each of which will host two urns. Each compartment is covered by an 8-inch-by-8-inch granite square. Those squares can be engraved with the name and birth/death dates of each occupant, according to Klemmer.
Facilities committee members agreed on a peaceful, gray color known as “St. Claire fleury” for the granite squares.
While it’s not unusual for congregations to install their columbaria prominently behind their respective church altars, St. Stephen’s officials took a different approach.
“We talked about where we would put it, what it would look like,” Klemmer said. “Anytime you’re dealing with a church, you’ve got lots of opinions.”
They ended up placing it in the church’s modest-yet-serene chapel fronting Main Street. Organizers reasoned the perennially accessible chapel will provide a weather-tight, discreet venue for family and friends to occasionally visit with their deceased loved ones. And that’s a comfort to those unable to get to a cemetery gravesite buried in snow.
Klemmer — an airplane pilot with mad carpentry skills — will soon frame the St. Stephen’s columbarium with cherry wood that will match new flooring to be installed in the chapel.
“We had to build a base for it and make sure the floor was structurally sound, because once it’s filled, this unit will weigh around 5,000 pounds,” Klemmer said.
St. Stephen’s parishioners donated approximately $23,000 toward the columbarium, augmented by a $13,000 grant through the Episcopal Church Diocese.
“We have no debt (for the project),” Klemmer said with pride.
That means all revenues from the sale of each niche — at $1,000 apiece, for an eventual total of $286,000 — will be invested in future church renovations. Most pressing, according to Klemmer, are repairs to a portion of the slate roof on the east side of the building, the bell tower, flooring underneath the baptismal font, and the 19th-century organ. Several church pews also need to be fixed or replaced, Klemmer added.
“We want to preserve this building,” he said, noting St. Stephen’s is the oldest Episcopal Church in Vermont that’s been in continuous, year-round service.
While St. Stephen’s first columbarium was reserved for parishioners, this new one is open to anyone — regardless of their religious affiliation. There is one general rule, though — the niches are only available for human ashes; people can’t reserve a spot for a beloved pet.
“We want this to be an open ministry,” Klemmer said. “You don’t have to be religious at all… You don’t even have to be Christian. Anyone who feels a connection to Middlebury and who wants to be interred here, what better place than the old stone church at the center of the green?”
As of Thursday, all 286 of the urn niches were available. Anyone interested in reserving one should call the St. Stephen’s office at 388-7200.
Parishioner Ben Anderson-Ray and his family made a donation toward the columbarium. Like Klemmer, Anderson-Ray believes the new structure will pay spiritual and financial dividends for the church and people throughout the region.
“It provides a place that families can visit easily,” he said.
Anderson-Ray thinks other churches would be well-served by installing columbaria of their own. Vermont is replete with historic places of worship that are seeing less and less use. Many churches nationwide are seeing a decline in membership as older worshippers pass on. Their places in the pews aren’t being fully replenished by the next generation of worshippers.
The addition of columbaria, Anderson-Ray said, could “give these buildings additional purpose for the longer term.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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