Bethany Lutheran holds final worship service before gifting facility to Mission Covenant 

  • Former pastor for Bethany Lutheran, Ernest Ryden, is joined by Rev. Dr. Mary Hendrickson on the pulpit at the Bethany Lutheran Church. STAFF PHOTO/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Churchgoers filled the pews for the last time at Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church in Orange on Sunday during the final worship service before the church’s closing. STAFF PHOTO/SARAH ROBERTSON

Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2019 11:17:58 PM

ORANGE — Wet eyes traced the arched ceilings, worn prayer books and stained glass windows during the final worship service for Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church last Sunday afternoon. 

“We are here today to gather for a bittersweet goodbye,” said Bishop James Hazelwood in his opening remarks. “While we are sad on this day, we are grateful for the resurrection.”

One-hundred and thirty years after its founding, the Bethany Lutheran at 62 Cheney St. is closed for good. Rather than shuttering the building, however, the facilities will be gifted to Mission Covenant Church, one block away, and continue to be used for various social and faith-based activities. 

Days before the final service, Rev. Marsha Heydenreich suffered a difficult loss. The mother of a friend of her mother, and the godmother of her own children, passed away and Heydenreich was asked to preach at the service. From that experience she was able to reflect on grief in a way that resonated with the closing congregation.

“It was as if that sorrow I was carrying had a purpose,” Heydenreich said. “Now, you will take with you all you have learned here and you’re going to treasure it, you’re going to grow it and you’re going to take it wherever you go.”

Rev. Dr. Mary Hendrickson, who serves as a pastor for both Bethany Lutheran and Mission Covenant, led congregants in the final confession.

“We have loved Your church, Lord, but have not reached outside of its walls to serve you,” she said. “Please forgive us, Lord, and please renew in us a desire to repent and to live differently as we go from this place.”

Like many rural churches, Bethany Lutheran is closing due to shrinking attendance, according to Hendrickson. She said the church used to see more than 200 people at Sunday worship decades ago, but in recent years, would see just over a dozen people on Sundays. More than 60 people attended the final worship on Jan. 27 at 3 p.m.

“People going to church these days is not a priority for many reasons,” said Bethany Council member Gail Pease, “It’s just been nice to have the love and support we’ve had over the years, and particularly this past Sunday.”

For many, the church had been the site of baptisms, weddings and funerals, where confessions were made, sins forgiven and a community was built on a shared faith inside the walls. Former members of Bethany Lutheran will continue looking for a new congregation to join, Pease said.

“I’m going to be wandering, along with a few,” Pease said. “We’re going to be visiting other churches for a while.”

The final service, postponed one week by the snow, was true to the Evangelical Lutheran tradition with the singing of traditional hymns like “A Mighty Fortress,” “Now Thank We All Our God,” and closing with “On Our Way Rejoicing.” Debbie Webster-Prevost grew up attending worship services at Bethany Lutheran, and her family members were among the original founders of the church. She lives in New Hampshire now, but traveled to Orange on Sunday to attend the ceremony.

“This will always have been home,” Webster-Prevost said.

The consolidation of the two churches reflects a concerted effort by several area church leaders to work together, establish interfaith groups and create new ways of helping others. Already, Mission Covenant has begun hosting the free community meals formerly held at Bethany Lutheran.

“We’re reviving the accumenical community,” said Judy Jones, a pastor at the Orange United Methodist Church, who attended the final service.

At the end of the ceremony, council member Alana Day presented keys to the Bethany Lutheran Church to chair of Mission Covenant’s Leadership Team, Mercedes Clingerman-Hunt. More than two years ago, Clingerman-Hunt started the Interfaith Neighbors Connecting group, made up of leaders from area churches working together to better serve the community’s needs.

Former pastors Marybeth Morris, Ernest Ryden, Karl Bittenbender and Andrea Hoslett attended the final service, as well, each taking some time to share their parting thoughts. Ryden climbed the pulpit to prove he could still do it, he said, and talked about the historic isolation of Orange by the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir.

Bittenbender and Hoslett discussed the ways the Bethany Lutheran congregation has reached outside its walls to help others. They mentioned how the church has run charities, scholarships and provided space to groups like the Franklin County Community Meals Program and the Pioneer Valley Junior Women’s Club.

Eight members of the Bethany Council also shared their parting thoughts — Alana Day, Miffy Salois, Melissa Shiner, Darlene Nutter-Truehart, Gail Pease, Doris Bittenbender, Luanne Lyman and Dorothy Verheyen. They thanked those who built and sustained the faith community for years and imparted to everyone that the culture service and faith does not end with the closing of Bethany Lutheran Church.

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