Letter to the editor: Orwell church, a true community asset, needs help

From its earliest settlement and history Vermont has been defined by a powerful critical life defining sense of community with small self sustaining villages cropping up all across the state. This is the defining element of Vermont. A collective gathering of self-sufficient interactive villages, communities and ultimately some larger towns interspersed through a classic Vermont landscape of family farms.
Community is defined as a unified body of individuals sharing a common history of social, economic, political and cultural interests. Society is defined as a community of interdependent people having common traditions, institutions, collective activities and interests. All implying a physical and social interaction and relationship.
With the explosion of cellphone zombies our physical communities are turning into virtual villages where the village now exists literally in the clouds. Where people once got IN line at the local village store or outlet they now simply get ON line to some mega warehouse outlet 3,000 miles away. Life and quality of life sustaining community and collective responsibility has yielded to simple blind destructive selfish convenience. Result. The frightening loss of community as real people based stores and operations are vanishing. Further, other cultural and economic forces are devastating our traditional institutions. Three historic Vermont colleges representing collectively, centuries of vital presence and critical cultural history are disappearing in just one year.
Hundreds of family farms have ceased to exist. Traditional neighborhood schools are closing. Many old established Vermont corporations are being sold off to out of state or even out of country enterprises. Historic community churches, the very heart and soul of Vermont’s noble history, are closing with many being sold off for unrelated usage.
Churches are the physical embodiment and manifestation of our noble history, our cultural tradition, our sense of common purpose, our dreams and critically our sense of community. If we lose our sense of community we cease to be a community.
Culture, tradition, society, civilization, community and common living history has for centuries played out in our physical community and especially, critically, in our spiritual centers, our community churches.
The First Congregational Church of Orwell is struggling to preserve the centuries long tradition which began with the first Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The very first single structure erected there served the universal function of a church, a community meeting place, a shelter from the weather and sometimes a hostile indigenous population, a storage for food and community supplies and a school.
For almost 200 years the historic brick Orwell Congregational Church on the green has defined Orwell’s downtown. It’s been a religious home to thousands and for thousands more a host of concerts, festivals, club meetings, school activities, senior meals, holiday celebrations, children’s groups, counseling sessions, historic events, weddings, baptisms and funerals.
For all this time the church has struggled with lack of access to the main floor of the building for those unable to negotiate decaying front steps or daunting interior stairs. Today we’ve been blessed with more and more guests of continued mind but significant mobility challenges. And Orwell’s need for a community-centered, independent, local meeting place accessible to all has never been greater.
With financial and subject matter help from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, the church in 2018 engaged an architect to consider, design and evaluate solutions for both access and another significant challenge — the lack of a second (fire) exit both from the main floor and basement assembly areas of the building. After much review the Church council determined that a small addition to the back of the Church containing a life, a new exterior entrance, another set of stairs and new fire exits from both primary floors provides the best all encompassing solution by meeting all defined needs while also limiting impacts.
Work began with reconstruction of the front steps last year. The excellent results were made possible through the blessings of a generous contractor and community members. The remaining cost for the rear addition is likely $170,000-$200,000. We hope to complete it by late 2019. But making this improvement for the Orwell community will require the community’s help.
If you’d like to give now, volunteer or simply learn more about the project, fell free to contact us. Phone numbers and email addresses are below. Additionally, an online donation resource and information about the project can be found at firstcongregationalchurchorwell.com.
Russell Young 948-2882, [email protected]
Miles Tudhope 948-2665, [email protected]
Sharon Fletcher 989-3322, [email protected]
Vermont has always been defined by a sense of community. If we loose that sense, if we actually loose our community we will cease to be Vermont. Let us turn this around today. Let us have a great revival and rebirth of Vermont. We can start with the Orwell Congregational Church. Then we must go forward to revive and sustain the numerous other struggling community churches across this state. Further, we must strive to revive and preserve all our other community functions including our local stores, our farms, our schools, our communities. This will require commitments of both physical as well as monetary contributions on the part of all caring Vermonters. Vermonters, let us all unite and go forward.
Very respectfully,
Rustan Swenson

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