Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Small and the Mighty

On opposite sides of the state, and then tucked right in the middle between them are three tiny congregations.  The outlook and mission of these small congregations are similarly situated, two being on opposite ends of a sliding scale and the third somewhere in between.  Looking at various aspects of parochial concern (mission, fellowship, and facility), the three slide along the scale, in and out of each other, weaving an intricately colorful aspect of our greater diocesan tapestry. While one congregation loves their building tenderly as if it were another member of their family, another feels a sense of liberty in not being bound by bricks and mortar, so to speak. And the third lies somewhere between, finding solace and contentment in whatever shelter they find. Where one congregation finds spiritual fulfillment in being intimately involved within their community, another finds spiritual fulfillment in their immediate communion. And the third seeks a balance between both ends.  Yet, like all of the churches and congregations that make up our varied and diverse diocese, each has a specific calling and the Spirit stirs. None of these three congregations have more than ten members or so, and that stirring will necessarily manifest itself in a much simpler manner.

Vermonters have the reputation of sheer stubborn tenacity.  When they want something—and get it—they tend to hold onto it with all their might and cunning. Never has that precept been more evident than in the case of St. Paul, Windsor. The congregation of St. Paul, Windsor has been in a search process for a new priest for about two years now.  They’ve done their discernment, posted their parish profile and continue to pray.  And in the meantime, priestless, they carry on.  They try to find a priest to supply for the great feasts, sometimes successfully and other times not.  Yet, they carry on. They may not celebrate Holy Eucharist with any regularity, but they still meet every Sunday morning for Morning Prayer. The five or six, seven or eight members that attend worship each Sunday are thankful for what they have—a congregation that cares for one another and the will to persevere.  They also have their church building which to them is as vital to them as another living entity.  It is the silent, embracing member of the congregation.

St. Paul's, Windsor
The church was built nearly 200 years ago and consecrated in 1820. It stands on a hill overlooking the small downtown of Windsor, inviting with its elegant, yet warm federal style architecture. Its interior mimics the symmetrical exterior. The semicircular sanctuary softens the otherwise angular lines.  The plasterwork is original if repaired and replaced in spots. In the style of the era the church was built, the original box pews have been well-maintained and retain their doors.
St. Paul's organ
The organ was built by one of St. Paul’s founding fathers, Lemuel Hedge. Lemuel Hedge invented a particular folding rule and had several other machine patents in his day.  He was a blacksmith by trade, and forged the pipes for the organ in his family’s smithy. All of the organ’s cabinetry is original, as are the hand carved keys.  You can clearly see the individuality of each key as well as the wear of many, many fingers on some of the keys’ surfaces. The church once housed a surfeit of spiritual artwork donated by wealthy parishioners over the years.  But almost all of it is gone now, sadly without record as record-keeping was never a forte at St. Paul’s.
St. Paul's remaining artwork
There are two very special pieces left adorning the rear wall of the nave.  One is a mold for a St. Gaudens bas relief of the Madonna and child.  The other is an anonymous oil-on-wood painting from the Bellini school of art in Renaissance Venice.  Giovanni Bellini specialized in artwork to adorn the churches of St. John and St. Paul, so it seems fitting to find this St. Paul Church similarly bedecked.

The preservation of St. Paul’s and its heritage is of mission-level importance to this congregation.  Few as they are, they have undertaken the call to stewardship of their church with a fervor that could only be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They have made massive repairs in recent years, including repairing plasterwork over the organ in the gallery, building a retaining stone wall to prevent erosion, re-gilding the bell tower dome with gold leaf.  They’ve made modern improvements over the years (like digging out a basement by hand so that they might have a fellowship/parish hall and installing an elevator for handicap access) that remain true to the original architectural style of the building.  Most of the recent restoration projects have been funded by grants from organizations such as the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation (St. Paul’s is listed on the national register of historical places). It may be said that it’s not the building that makes a congregation.  But in some cases, the building and its history are formative in lifelong memories.  In some cases, God’s Spirit calls to the mission of preservation.  It is right to answer that call as the good folks in Windsor have done.

the schoolhouse on Jerusalem Road
Straight across the state, near the town of Bristol, meets “an ecclesiastical peculiarity.” Jerusalem Gathering—its musical name is a quirky as its existence, but is so called not for that quirkiness, but in all its mundaneness: the gathering meets on Jerusalem Road in Starksboro.  It was described to me as “an ecclesiastical peculiarity” because its very existence is, well peculiar.  It is not a parish.  It is not a mission.  It is not some radical breakaway faction.  It is simply a gathering of Episcopalians who worship together and partake of Holy Communion.  They have no mission; they have no purposeful ministries other than to worship Christ.  Whatever offering collection they take entirely supports the needs of the local community.  Their priest is a volunteer and unpaid. Jerusalem Gathering meets twice a month on the first and third Sundays at the schoolhouse on Jerusalem Road.  It is very simple and has change little in the twenty years of its existence in this diocese.  The congregation is made up of an assortment of college professors, a young family, and some retired folks.  The service is as familiar as any Episcopalian worship, but the sermon is more of a conversational style—a sort of Bible Study discussion based on the day’s lectionary.  They rarely have a coffee hour afterwards, but once a year on the first Sunday of December for Jerusalem Gathering’s birthday, they celebrate with a little coffee hour birthday party. As I wended my way toward their schoolhouse meeting place, I rather felt like I was on the road to Emmaus; any second I would meet the stranger who is Jesus! (Instead of the carpenter, though, I met a chainsaw artist who was carving an eagle.)  I thought about the name of the township and wondered if the “stark” in Starksboro presaged the congregation. Yet after speaking with three different members of the small community, I decided, “Nah!...Too much warmth to be stark.”

St. Dunstan's, Waitsfield
Similarly, there is a gregarious warmth in the small parish of St. Dunstan’s in Waitsfield. Like exuberant, outgoing gypsies, the congregation makes their church home where they are welcome.  Once in a round barn, once in a resort hotel conference room, once in a Catholic church.  Now it seems they have a more stable place with a sense of permanence in Founders’ Hall of Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church.  They have a wall upon which they can hang their reredos, which in turn signifies that you have entered an Episcopal church. 
reredos at St. Dunstan's
The reredos is a beautiful appliqued kite-shaped wall hanging whose image is taken from a picture of a stained glass window.  In the cupboard that serves as the sacristy, one can find the photo from which the image was taken.  They are quite contented with their current location and have developed a comfortable relationship with the Catholic congregation who welcomes this small Episcopal church in their space.  But at the same time, if they are once again asked to find a new location, they are perfectly ready to do so.

St. Dunstan’s was founded in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s and was named for the Saint regarded for making church bells.  Curiously, no one in the current congregation seems to know why this patron Saint was chosen as their namesake.  To be sure, St. Dunstan is uncommon enough not to be duplicated in the diocese (not wanting to be amongst the proliferation of St. Paul, St. Luke, and St. James or even Trinity, the rarity of St. Dunstan held its appeal to the church founders). St. Dunstan was Archbishop of Canterbury in the latter part of the 10th century. He was a blacksmith and silversmith as a tradesman monk and is thus the patron saint of bell makers, jewelers and other smithy crafters. There is a story of St. Dunstan shoeing the Devil’s hoof and only removing the painful horseshoe when the Devil promised never to enter a building with a horseshoe over the door.  Perhaps it was for this determined “Damn the Devil” attitude that the founders took Dunstan’s name.

The community from which members of St. Dunstan’s hail is largely comprised of artists and crafters.  Waitsfield is also a ski resort town and the visitors tend to absorb the artsy atmosphere. Some of the congregation themselves are artists and organizers of arts programs in the area.  And their creativity knows no bounds!  The coffee hour I was invited to, for instance, was no mere beverage and chitchat.  It was a feast of delicate salad and a delectable quiche of homegrown vegetables—a gustatorial work of art! And conversation entailed storytelling and an enrichment of tales of wonder and enlightenment. It is indeed evident that congregations reflect their communities and God works within those local parameters. This was never more apparent than at St. Dunstan’s.

Even with situations being equal, at least as far as congregation size is concerned, the concerns and calling of every congregation is unique.  Looking at just a few of our diocese’s smallest congregations makes this very apparent.  St. Paul’s, Windsor; Jerusalem Gathering, Bristol; and St. Dunstan’s, Waitsfield are all comparable in size, but the way the Spirit stirs each congregation couldn’t be more unique!  As I visit more and more churches in our diocese, I am touched by each particular expression of God’s Holly Spirit at work.  It makes each church, each parish, each gathering very special and a gift to the rest of us.  We are truly blessed in the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont!