The waning pandemic is not the only reason that the Lower Waterford Congregational Church is holding services on Zoom.
The 162-year-old church, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019, is in need of repairs before it can reopen.
Fortunately, it is the recent recipient of a $50,000 grant from the Vermont Preservation Trust in partnership with the Freeman Foundation. According to Joe Healy, President of the Waterford Preservation Trust (WPT), the funds will pay for repairs to the electrical system, roof, steeple, and will replace its rusted tin ceiling.
If all goes according to plan, the church will reopen for services this fall.
But that may be only the beginning.
According to a press release from the church, the grant comes at a time when membership in the congregation is dwindling as members age or move away.
“The Congregation has made a commitment to do all it can to restore the lovely historic structure and to find an adaptive reuse of the church building that will benefit the entire community,” says the release.
That’s where the WPT, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed in the past year to facilitate and support the renovation and preservation of the church, comes in. The WPT envisions the building as a potential community center for the town.
“Waterford has one town center, it’s inarguable, and it’s the White Village,” said Healy, who also serves on the Davies Memorial Library board, on Tuesday. “It’s got Rabbit Hill Inn, the town office, the library … and this beautiful church that’s been home to past events such as music and poetry readings.”
The congregation only uses the church building, which is quite large and includes a kitchen and meeting space area, on Sundays.
Ideas for community use of the space range widely. A town-wide survey conducted in 2017 indicated strong interest in a commercial kitchen, space for concerts, dances, exercise classes, a cafe, after-shool programs, watercraft rental, art classes, or collaborative workspace.
Of course, those options would require a lot of work.
A 2019 study, funded by a USDA Rural Business Development grant, went through the church building “with a fine-toothed comb” and showed that almost a million dollars in work would be needed to fully renovate it. According to Healy, two of the biggest concerns are wastewater and parking.
This fall, once the initial grant-funded work is complete, the WPT plans to get more serious about discussions for future use as well as fundraising efforts.
Healy and the WPT look to the Upright Steeple Society in Lyndon, which renovated a Greek Revival Church over a number of years and whose board member Jim Gallagher has been extremely helpful to the WPT.
Healy notes that, as in Lyndon, this will be a long-term effort.
“We’re not impatient about this,” he said.
The WPT board includes a church trustee, former building contractors, former and current town librarians, a real estate agent, a trustee of the Davies Memorial Library and a director with accounting skills.
“Like a lot of preservation trusts around the country, we just want to save those historic buildings … they’re really relevant and identifiable to the town,” Healy said.