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Historic Church on Market in Bennington

The Bennington Banner, Aug. 1, 2007

By Mark E. Rondeau

BENNINGTON —  The First United Methodist Church, a Main Street landmark for more than 170 years, is up for sale. The asking price is $550,000, said Ted Bird, who is handling the property for Hoisington Realty in Bennington. So far there has been interest in it as an office building and as a residence, but nothing definite, he said.

The Rev. Deborah Estey, pastor of the church, said membership has been declining for the last 20 years and got to the point where keeping the building open was taking more energy than ministering to the congregation. The church board first decided on the sale and then the building committee of the Troy Methodist Conference — to which the church belongs — visited and also approved selling the property, she said.

An average of 25 to 30 people attend the weekly Sunday service, a small amount in a sanctuary that seats around 200 people, Estey said. Beginning July 1 the weekly Sunday worship service has been held at the Bennington Free Library.

A sign on the front of the church says the congregation was organized on May 6, 1827. Bird said the original church building was constructed on the site in 1833, and a new building was built around it in 1909. Evidence of the first building can be seen in certain areas of the church, such as beams from the original structure. The church building is larger than it appears from Main Street and is 16,780-square-feet total with three full floors, including a fully developed basement. The facility includes several classrooms, offices, meeting space, a kitchen and a cafeteria, he said.

Until recently, the church had been the latest home of the Bennington Youth Center, which moved to the First Baptist Church earlier this summer.

With the proceeds from the sale of the building, the congregation hopes to purchase another building or build a new church in Bennington. "We want to keep the Methodist Church presence in Bennington," Estey said.

Estey is also pastor of the Shaftsbury Methodist Church, where she has been since 1995. She has been pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Bennington since 2004.

When asked if selling the church was a difficult decision, Estey answered: "Of course it was. It was very disheartening."

She noted that for nearly 200 years people have struggled to keep the church open: "It has beautiful stained glass windows, and there's a lot of history there." Now the focus is on the future: "We're just looking for God's leading to get the building sold," she said.

(Photo: Jesus and the children. Upstairs chapel in the Methodist church building in Bennington, Vt. (Mark E. Rondeau)

Keeping the Faith

The Bennington Banner, Sept. 4, 2007

By Mark E. Rondeau

BENNINGTON — They are fighting the good fight, they are keeping the faith. Though they no longer meet at their historic church on Main Street — a spot where Methodists have worshipped since 1833 — members of the First United Methodist Church intend to keep their presence alive in Bennington.

"The church is not a building," said the Rev. Deborah Estey. "The church is people."

Since July 1, the congregation has been meeting for its Sunday morning service in a rectangular meeting room in the Bennington Free Library.

Just before 9 a.m. on the last Sunday in August, Estey, a pleasant and direct woman, stood outside the door welcoming visitors. About 20 people showed up for the service; five of these were a family visiting from Wisconsin. Most of the rest attending were senior citizens.

Estey led the congregation in hymns and conducted a communion service. Her sermon was concise and direct and made frequent references to God helping people out of difficult times and places.

"Actually, since we had to leave the building, it's been very sad. Some of these people invested their whole life in that building," she said after the service. "So I have been trying to give sermons and put a little piece in there to encourage them."

The maintaining church became too expensive for the small congregation to afford. The cost to heat it alone runs about $24,000 a year, Estey said. "And with electricity and everything on top of that, it's just too much."

The plan is to sell the old church and eventually build a much smaller and economical church that fits the congregation, keeping a presence in Bennington.

Some members are clearly still hurting from the move. Natalie Rallis was baptized in the church when she was 13 and married there in 1955.

"It's just so sad to see that (for sale) sign in front of our church," she said. "It's just heartbreaking and it shouldn't be happening."

"It's sad. It's horrible for this town," Rallis said. "I just hope. I just have hopes that somebody will come along who lives in this town, maybe with money, and will save that. We need that on Main Street. It's a landmark. It's just Main Street to me, that's all I can say."

Judy Hill and Nancy Muir are two middle-aged women and longtime Sunday school teachers with the church.

"The amount of people, back when we first started Sunday school, you couldn't hardly move in the church. It was so packed," Hill remembered.

"But it's like all churches. It seems that not as many people are going to church anymore. That's the sad part about it. It's not just the Methodist church.

"But our hope is to build another building and to house what members that we do have," she said. "But in the interim I think the library works good. It's a nice room here and it works about well."

Both women miss the old church, but both see reason for hope in the future. One is the hope of building up the membership.

"We want to keep our presence in Bennington. We know there's a lot of Methodists out there. We had a lot of the kids, and they're adults now," Hill said. "My own daughter was coming today, but it was a rough night with the granddaughter. So she's not here. (We're) trying to get the youth back, the younger kids back."

Muir sees Estey as a real blessing for the congregation. "She is probably the inspiration for everything. She's great," she said. "Her message is like — boom — right at you."

"Tell them to come," the women said as a final comment. "We'll greet them at the door with a smile. And you don't even have to be Methodist ."

Estey said that historically people don't come back to a church once they have fallen away from it. "So we're hoping that newer people will come if we market it right and do what we need to do."

With the church for sale and some interest but no buyers yet, things are still unresolved.

"We are being obedient to God and just waiting for him to show us where we need to be," said Estey.