Conn. Church Hopes to be "Home" for Christmas
Conn. Church Hopes to be "Home" for Christmas
BY JOANNE S. UTLEY
Editor, The Vision
Come Christmas, the First United Methodist Church of Middletown, Conn., is hoping to leave behind their itinerant days of the last five years and settle into a new home. A 2,000-square-foot church is being constructed on former farmland about five miles from their old sanctuary in the middle of town.
The congregation made the difficult decision to sell what had been their home since 1931, citing dwindling membership and increasing expenses. Their last service on Old Church Street was on August, 31, 2014; the sale of the building was all but finalized. They first moved their worship services to the ballroom at the local Elks Lodge which held its challenges with the weekly setup and teardown. They’ve since left that location and are worshiping with the South and First Congregational churches.
The groundbreaking for the Tuttle Road building took place in October 2018 with Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, Connecticut District Superintendent Alpher Sylvester and other members of the cabinet; the bulldozers came in earlier this summer and work has progressed steadily ever since.
“We were just looking for real estate that was available in Middletown,” said Pastor Barbara Marks, who has led the church for four years. “This lot was the right size . . . it has better demographics than the old church area.”
She said that there are a number of single parent families nearby, and there are plans for 140 apartment units in a mixed residential and retail project. The site is also in close proximity to the middle and high schools.
“God has given us this site,” Marks said.
Ironically, the site has connections to the family of Debbie Camp, a member of the trustees and the church council chair. Her great-grandfather had owned and farmed the property and his old barn still sits atop the ridge behind the construction zone. The barn will be coming down eventually, Marks said, with the intention to repurpose some of the wood in the new building.
The sale of the old church and some smart investing gave the church $1 million for the new build. The 2.8 acres of land were bought for $250,00 and the cost of the church will be in the high sixes, according to Pastor Marks. One sticking point has been the town’s insistence that the church pay taxes on the property until it becomes a permanent house of worship. That is costing about $10,000 a year.
The structure has been designed as a “foundation church” with the back and two sides built into the hill; only the front elevation is fully exposed, according to Marks. The trustees opted for a roof with a steep pitch that could be lifted to add a second level at a later date. Inside is one large gathering room that will be filled with moveable furniture, and an office, kitchen and classroom.
Marks admitted that the whole process has been a huge learning curve for her.
“I don’t know anything about this kind of thing.” “It’s been difficult not knowing what the resources are . . . not knowing what to expect,” she said, but added that they had been “blessed by a wonderful project manager” and members of the Branford and Wethersfield UMCs that she “borrowed” to be on our building team.
Marks’ late husband, David, set a lot of things in motion for the process.
“He got the architect, knew who to pull in as a project manager,” Marks said. “He did a lot of the early legwork.”
A couple of months after David Marks died in 2018, the congregation was scheduled to hold its first outdoor service at the site on Pentecost Sunday. The sky was overcast and threatening rain, but the congregation wanted to go ahead with the service.
“Then the sun came out, and we knew,” Pastor Marks said. “We knew that Dave was there.” To honor his contributions, one of his shovels was used in the groundbreaking.
She and Camp both credited Pastor John Blossom in helping to secure the property. (Blossom, who had been leading the East Berlin UMC and Trinity UMC in Meriden, Conn., passed away on September 15 after he became ill while on a conference trip to South Korea.)
Marks has been amazed by the dedication and perseverance of the congregation who were still grieving their former building when she arrived.
“They are very faithful,” she said. “They knew they did not want to join forces with another church. They wanted to be the United Methodist Church in Middletown.”
Camp said that one of the biggest impacts on the congregation was the realization that the “church is not a building.” After bouncing around from the Elks to church to church, “people are still there and wanting to stay together,” she added. The church is also starting to see some generous donations coming from outside the congregation, some of them with promises of matching funds.
“Pastor Barbara is really moving us forward,” said Camp, who has been a member of the church for 25 years. “I can’t believe that this is happening.”
Marks is challenging the congregation to step farther out in faith as they rebuild and start anew.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to do mission, but I know we’re in a good place to do it,” she said.