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Meetinghouse work brings Wendell together

Recorder/Paul Franz
Friends of the Wendell Meeting House board members gather to check out the completion of phase one of the building’s restoration, the windows restored and new doors.   From left are Melinda Godfrey, Nan Riebschlaeger, Paul Godfrey, Chris Queen, Pam Richardson, Jerry Barrilla and Adrian Montagano.  Not pictured are Christine Fontaine and Charles Smith.

Recorder/Paul Franz Friends of the Wendell Meeting House board members gather to check out the completion of phase one of the building’s restoration, the windows restored and new doors. From left are Melinda Godfrey, Nan Riebschlaeger, Paul Godfrey, Chris Queen, Pam Richardson, Jerry Barrilla and Adrian Montagano. Not pictured are Christine Fontaine and Charles Smith.

WENDELL — Like most small New England towns, Wendell has a white church that’s prominent near its town common.

The difference in this town, which prides itself on difference, is that the Wendell Meetinghouse hasn’t been an active church for more than a decade, and there’s no other church in town. But after years of neglect, it’s getting a lot of attention as the town comes together around the dedication of what will become part art center and lecture hall, part spiritual center and gym, and part historical museum.

The latest chapter comes with replacement of its windows and doors, which will be dedicated today in a 1:15 p.m. ceremony as part of Wendell Old Home Day.

There are 12 windows in all — eight large and four small — and two front doors, for which the Friends of the Wendell Meetinghouse had to raise $40,000 from some of the town’s 900 residents. Each of the doors and windows is named for a resident or family “who have contributed to the life of town through their public service, their art and their friendship,” according to the committee.

The building could still use a paint job, the crawl space needs to be weatherized, and the interior needs extensive repairs to ceiling and walls, but about 40 people are expected to gather today for the event.

In some cases, the committee noted in its flier, contributions were made in memory of family members, while in others, “they were given directly by neighbors to prepare the meetinghouse for its future at the center of town life.”

The large windows all around the large room were replaced with panes of wavy (transparent) glass salvaged from the South Deerfield home of the late Fanny Hager, whose Wendell family will be among those honored in dedication of the tall windows framed with amber panes. Others named include the late Elsie and Al Diemand, who started the Diemand Farm, 40-year road superintendent Danny Bacigalupo, who died in 2008, and Good Neighbors food pantry founder Rosalie Rosser, who died in 2007.

The smaller south-facing windows will have “hammered” (translucent) glass replacements that are dedicated to local artist Christine Tarentino; Vic Scutari, the late co-owner of the Wendell Country Store and founder of Deja Brew pub; and Molly Kaynor, who was involved in restoration of the meetinghouse before her 2011 death.

The twin entrance doors are being named for Finance Committee Chairman Lee Trousdale, who before his death in 2006 was recognized for stabilizing the town’s finances, as well as for the Ricketts family, including longtime Fire Chief Everett Ricketts, his brother Byron and their mother, Nellie, who for years organized Fire Department dinners, and Byron’s son, Lonnie, who was emergency management director and health board chairman.

“Now we have a beautiful, open room where can see our old burial ground,” said Chris Queen, vice president of Friends of the Wendell Meetinghouse, adding that the upstairs hall will become the home of the Wendell Historical Society.

As in any town, there have been differences over historical renovations and whether the list of honorees was inclusive enough. But this is one in a series of steps to restore the 167-year-old, double-entrance Greek Revival building, with plenty more work and fundraising ahead.

“We’ve got so far to go,” said Queen.

The two-story meetinghouse was built in 1846 to replace a 1783 Congregational Church that was funded by the Boston judge and banker Oliver Wendell and had never had a spire, tower or bell. Equipped with a bell that was cast by the foundry of former Paul Revere apprentice George Holbrook, the church had its steeple splintered by a lightning bolt in the 1920s, and its use as a church halted in 1972. After reopening in 1981, its use as a church ended permanently in 1991.

But the community, which has come together in the last decade to build a new library and new town offices, has begun restoring the meetinghouse as a historically significant landmark, with the Friends group installing a new roof in 2006 and rebuilding the steeple in a 2009 work bee with materials paid for by a fund drive.

About a decade after the friends group took over the building in 2002 from the Wendell Community Church, the group repaired the belfry last year, taking the first steps toward what Queen said will probably be a quarter-million-dollar restoration effort.

“We’re going to need major grant funding from foundations, and we’ve got our work cut out for us in terms of first getting a historic structure report as a gateway to larger money,” said Queen, pointing to the need to gut the interior to put in a warming kitchen and bathrooms. There are also plans, he said, to build a large storage area between the two new front doors where equipment will be kept for four rotating activities envisioned for the large downstairs room. Separate committees that are now being organized would plan for lectures and cultural events, spiritual activities such as weddings and memorial services, as well as weekly meditation, a fitness gym with portable equipment and for exhibits and art workshops and other events.

The long-range plan, said Queen, is that activities could generate income to cover ongoing maintenance costs.

“We’re really focused on how this can be the center of activities in the future, so that, for example, residents don’t have to go driving into Athol or Greenfield every time they want to exercise. Like any church that’s being retrofitted or repurposed all over America, we’re saying ‘what’s Wendell’s own need?’”

“Shutesbury has an ‘athletic club’ that’s actually a bar; our fitness gym will actually be a church.”

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