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In Need Of Salvation

Faith May Be Forever, But Time's Wearing On Historic Churches

November 12, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

On the afternoon of July 25, Jason Charneski walked into the sanctuary of historic Center Church, the First Church of Christ in Hartford. As the church's music director, he planned to practice on the organ and replace the dust cover on the piano.

The first thing he noticed was more dust than usual. "Then I looked up ... expletive deleted," he said.

A trapezoid-shaped section of the church's barrel vault ceiling, covering perhaps 20 square feet and weighing a couple hundred pounds, had come crashing down at the front of the church, smashing the glass on the communion table and sending splintered plaster all over the sanctuary area. One staff member said the interior of the meetinghouse looked like a bomb hit it. Thankfully, the church was empty when the accident occurred.

We tend to think of the downtown churches as great rocks of ages, invulnerable and invincible. Dream on, brothers and sisters. Faith may be forever, but wood and plaster are subject to the ravages of time.

The accident at Center Church offers an insight into what is becoming a national problem. Many historic downtown churches have grown fragile and more difficult to maintain over the centuries. This has happened in many cases as congregations have lost members to age or the suburbs, leaving fewer people to meet a greater need.

Thus the issue. Virtually all of these historic churches have supported themselves over the years with minimal government help, usually in the form of property tax exemptions. Are the buildings important enough to the broader community to warrant greater public investment? In many European countries, historic churches or cathedrals are maintained with government support.

If Center Church is the case in point, there's no argument about its historical importance. This is the congregation that founded the city and gave it its name. The church was "gathered" in present-day Cambridge, Mass., in 1632 and led to the west bank of the Connecticut River four years later by its first minister, the Rev. Thomas Hooker.

The new community was named after Hertford, England, the home of the Rev. Samuel Stone, a colleague and co-founder of the city with Hooker. In 1639, representatives of the three river towns, Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield, met in the church's small log meetinghouse to draw up the famed Fundamental Orders, a precursor to the U.S. Constitution.

That meetinghouse, near the site of the Old State House, was given to the Rev. Hooker for a barn when a new meetinghouse was built in 1641. A third meetinghouse was built in 1741 at the present site at Main and Gold streets, and was the site in 1788 of the Connecticut convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

The fourth and current meetinghouse, with its ionic columns and wedding cake steeple, was built in 1807 and will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. The design of the Georgian-style building is credited to Daniel Wadsworth, who is said to have been inspired by St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

The "new" building has had its share of historic moments; it was actually the site of the city's first Catholic Mass, in 1813. The Church House, at 60 Gold St., was built in 1905 and is the site of many community activities.

The meetinghouse has plaques and stained glass windows (including five gorgeous Tiffany windows) memorializing such prominent members as Horace Wells, discoverer of anesthesia; Dr. Thomas H. Gallaudet, father of deaf education; Connecticut Chief Justice Thomas Williams and others. But these worthies have long been in the heavenly choir.

The church, which had as many as a thousand members in the early 20th century, is now down to about 300 steadfast souls. As is typical of downtown churches, 70 percent of the congregation lives in the suburbs. Even downtown churches that have increased attendance still face daunting maintenance costs.

In addition to their religious calling, the dozen or so downtown churches in Hartford do great work for the city. They feed, clothe, house and educate residents in need through organizations such as Center City Churches and the Christian Activities Council. But they don't need their old buildings to perform these missions.

Some congregations have found it impossible to maintain historic downtown church buildings, and have abandoned them. New Britain recently saved its beautiful Trinity Church as an arts center, as Hartford had done earlier with the former Charter Oak Temple.

Hard as it is to imagine downtown Hartford without Center Church, it's not yet a sure thing that the church can make these repairs. For openers, the church's insurance claim was denied, about which the minister, the Rev. J. Richard Sherlock, is more forgiving than I would be. He had trouble finding an engineering firm to inspect the roof, but did and the work finally began last week.

If the damage can be repaired by simply patching the hole, the church can afford it. If there is some major structural flaw that requires replacement of the ceiling, then the cost will be prohibitive. The church has an endowment, but much of it is restricted to certain donees such as "needy gentlewomen of Hartford" or the "dependent poor of the church," the Rev. Sherlock explained.

On the plus side, preservationists and public officials "fully recognize that these churches are historic places," said Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Places. She said the trust and the state make restoration grants to churches.

A national nonsectarian nonprofit called Partnership for Sacred Places based in Philadelphia helps congregations and their communities sustain and use historic houses of worship, either as churches or for a wide variety of other purposes. Higgins said more proposals are being discussed as the problem becomes more evident.

One area where the trust and the state Historical Preservation Office might be helpful is codes. The Rev. Sherlock said his congregation wanted to redo the church basement into art exhibition space, which involved moving some non-weight-bearing walls. Church members were able and willing to do the work. But code restrictions would have required a half-million dollars worth of work to get a building permit, the minister said, so they couldn't do it.

As long as the requirements of safety are met, the code standards for a 200-year-old building ought to reflect the building's historicity.

We need to help Center Church if we can. This congregation is the living core of Hartford's history. The church meetinghouse is one of the city's architectural landmarks. It would be unthinkable not to have it on Main Street.

For more information, see www.centerchurchhartford.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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