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Bethany Lutheran Church in Orange closing

  • Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/DEBORRAH PORTER



For The Recorder
Thursday, November 22, 2018

ORANGE — Declining attendance at the Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church on Cheney Street has pushed church leaders to make some difficult decisions. The church will close in January, and gift its facilities to Mission Covenant Church around the block.

“They felt this was the right decision,” said Mary Hendrickson, a pastor for both churches. “I think it wants to be remembered as being a light in the community in Orange.”

Like many rural churches, Bethany Church is closing because attendance has been shrinking for years. Decades ago, Hendrickson said the church used to see over 200 people at Sunday worship, in addition to multiple youth programs. Today it sees just over a dozen at Sunday service with no youth programs, and about 100 in a week when counting the volunteer-led community meals. Meanwhile, Hendrickson said membership at Mission Church is growing.

“It’s already known in the community, people have talked about it,” Hendrickson said. “It’s the first major church to close.”

In downtown Orange there are at least five churches within a half mile of each other clustered around South Main and Putnam streets, and two more across the river.

Hendrickson moved to Orange in April 2017, and in a short time has become very involved in the faith communities in the area. On Sunday mornings she leads a worship at Bethany Church, then crosses the parking lot for another service at Mission Church for 10 a.m., in addition to organizing interfaith neighborhood groups in the area.

“It’s sad for them, in the sense that this is the end of a very long era,” Hendrickson said. “With time they felt strongly that this is what they’re supposed to do.”

Bethany Church was founded in 1889 by Swedish immigrants. Around the same time, a separate group of Swedish immigrants founded Mission Church on the same street block. Bethany Church is made of brick and the Mission Church of wood, so they became known in town as the “brick Swedes” and the “wood Swedes.”

The property that the Mission church sits on was once owned by the Lutherans. In gifting the brick building to Mission Church it is “bringing the Swedish heritage full circle,” Hendrickson said.

Lutheranism is one of the largest denominations of Protestantism, and the first to break from the Catholic church in the 16th century. The Lutherans and Convenants both practice Christianity, but historically differ in their rituals, missions and interpretation of the Bible.

“Lutherans in general are extremely liturgical. They follow a rigid, pre-set order of worship and use traditional hymnody in the music. This type of worship is deeply meaningful to those who practice it,” Hendrickson said. “Covenanters are more flexible in worship style and are deeply committed to living a missional life.”

Hendrickson sees the closing as a loss to the community, but not without a silver lining. By joining with the neighboring church, they may be able to offer more to church members with the combined resources of two congregations. Hendrickson said the consolidation reflects a wider push by church leaders in the community to work together, establish interfaith groups and create new ways of helping others.

“There’s a strong sense right now of uniting to serve Orange, which is unprecedented,” Hendrickson said. “It’s developing and it excites us all.”

In recent years, friendly competitions between congregations have helped raise more money for social good than they could individually. Last year, per Hendrickson’s challenge, several churches participated in a local “Walk for Water” campaign that together raised $7,000 to build water wells in Africa. Next Wednesday, several clergy members from local churches will be gathering for a Thanksgiving service at 7 p.m. at Central Congregational Church in Orange.

During its lifetime, Bethany Church served the community in important ways. It provided college scholarships to the youth of Orange, and space to community groups like Franklin County Meals and the Pioneer Valley Junior Women’s Club. Churchgoers are known for making excellent Swedish meatballs, and the music-filled services.

“They put a high priority for excellence in music,” Hendrickson said, noting several adult and children's’ choirs throughout the years.

Exactly how Mission Church will use the building, and where services will continue is still being decided by the church leaders. Any financial assets remaining will be distributed to community-based nonprofit organizations. An ornate organ from 1909 is still used during services today, and will remain in the church building.

“Mission Covenant Church is humbled by the gift that will enable them to continue to grow as a congregation and to continue to expand community ministry in the years to come,” Hendrickson said.

Church leaders made the decision to close in January 2018, and waited to announce the decision until Mission had voted to accept the large gift, along with the financial responsibilities and upkeep that come with it. The Mission Church leadership will be attending a retreat in January where they will discuss potential futures for the building.

The final worship service at the Bethany Church will take place on Jan. 20 at 3 p.m., and anyone from the community is encouraged to attend. The church is located at 62 Cheney St. in downtown Orange.