Christmas in July … part one

The Flame Flickers in West Brookfield

If there is a sacred moment for the residents of West Bookfield, it is during the singing of Silent Night at the end of the nonsectarian Christmas Eve service in the spare, wooden church, built in 1839. There’s no glitter, no flashing lights. The space is sparsely decorated with greens, the cold of winter barely fended off by the heat from the Sargent, Roundy & Osgood woodstove made a hundred years ago in nearby Randolph. The only light is from candles and kerosene chandelier. A child takes a candle and passes the flame. It continues, one by one, until each person is illuminated by a single flame. The space flickers in communal light. Little has changed since 1839. All is calm, all is bright.

It’s Christmas in Vermont.

West Brookfield is set on a dirt crossroads near the geographic center of the state. It features a dozen homes in a high valley dominated by a family-owned dairy farm. Most of the structures were built in the 1800s. Of note are the one-room schoolhouse, and the white, clapboard church that is just the right scale for the union of human and spiritual life. But this scene of pastoral bliss is under assault from several directions. Unless the town residents can get it together, and keep it together, the church may soon be a footnote in the town’s history.

These are tough times for churches in rural Vermont. An aging demographic in combination with scandals, lawsuits, and changing attitudes towards spirituality have resulted in declining congregations, which, in turn, mean a declining need for the structures built to serve the needs of worshipers. Maintaining these graceful masterpieces can be ill-afforded by the dwindling congregations that own them.

“It would be a shame if this beautiful building was allowed to deteriorate,” says Reverend Sue Church of the Congregational Church of Christ, the owner of the West Brookfield Church, as well as one in East Braintree, less than two miles down the road. Reluctantly, the church trustees decided that one had to go. West Brookfield drew the short straw.

The building needs some love. The slate roof is leaking. It could use fresh paint, and there are creosote stains from the long stovepipe that runs the length of the interior. “It’s still doable at this point,” says Reverend Church in reference to the maintenance issues.

“It’s a gem” agrees Eric Gilbertson of the Preservation Trust of Vermont pointing to a five-year old, but still valid structural assessment performed by Jeremiah Parker, a well-regarded restorationist from Shoreham, Vermont. His report characterizes the building as fundamentally sound, but in need of maintenance estimated at $55,000. While not a prohibitive sum, it is more than the current owners are willing to spend. Before listing the property on the open market, however, the trustees of the church suggested an alternative to local residents. If they could form a viable and sustainable community organization to manage and maintain the building, they could have it for $1.

“West Brookfield doesn’t really need this building as a place of worship,” says Reverend Church, “but it does need it as a community center.”

Forming a viable and sustainable anything is a challenge in West Brookfield due to the diversity of economic and social interests. The community includes white collar professionals, retirees from the Flatlands, elderly Vermonters living on fixed incomes, young families struggling to make ends meet, idealistic organic farmers, and dairy farmers coping with impossibly low milk prices. Although Vermonters generally mind their own business and agree that good fences make good neighbors, West Brookfield with its compact center, physically anchored by the church, has always been a place where people share even the difficult transitions of life.

A group of twenty-five met initially, and apprehensively, in November, 2009 to hear what the Trustees of the Congregational Church had to say about the future of the church. The message was delicate, but firm. It was time for the congregation to relieve itself of the responsibility and expense of the church. They would turn it over to a community group, but only if the group could demonstrate a dedicated core membership, backed by a well-articulated, feasible plan. Individual priorities must be secondary to community commitment. No lip service needed. Translation: “The ball is in your court.”

Where to begin? Two residents in attendance, Susan Shea of the Green Mountain Club and John Roe of the Vermont Land Trust, are veterans of the non-profit world, and were helpful in giving the group a starting point.

Non-profits, Roe pointed out, are easy to form, but harder to maintain, with the book keeping for the tax structure being the most vexing part. His experience with another group trying to preserve and maintain the historic town hall in nearby Brookfield made him cautious about embracing the non-profit route:

“There is a limit to how much personal time (social capital) and money a community can give, and I think we are very much on the brink of that here. The traditional social capital in West Brookfield may pull this through, but it may isolate us more from the rest of Brookfield, which is not a good thing.” He promised to explore working under the auspices of the established Bookfield organization.

The challenge was come up with a written proposal by March, 2010 that the trustees could evaluate at their annual spring meeting. The group met a second time in January at the home of John and Tina O’Donnell, located just catty-cornered from the church.

Over hot coffee and warm cookies the group grappled with basic issues. What is our name? What is our purpose? What is our organization? Scott Wakefield, 28, stepped forward, volunteering to be Treasurer, a huge first step. Scott’s ancestry goes back eight generations to early settlers of nearby Roxbury. Of the forty dairy farms that once operated in West Brookfield, only the Wakefield’s Meadowbrook Farm remains. Scott’s father Lynn knows more about the physical structure than anyone, having grown up mostly within sight it. His mother, Alice, the author of West Brookfield and Thereabouts is similarly expert on its history.

Next up, a name. The group settled on West Brookfield Village Trust, in part because the acronym (WBVT) could easily be remembered. By the end of the February meeting, they had established committees and officers.

Tina O’Donnell became President. A veteran school teacher in the public school system (Scott Wakefield was once her student.), she is a centrist politically, socially, and even geographically, a perfect person to facilitate meetings and to bridge potential communications gaps between the town’s extremes.

John Roe’s inquiries to area non-profits found them all thinly-resourced and too pre-occupied with their core missions to undertake a new venture. West Brookfield would have to fend for itself.

The group met its March deadline to send the church trustees a written proposal, then, in July, became officially recognized as a community non-profit by the state of Vermont. Now the real work could begin.

The community gathers on a warm summer afternoon for an initial clean-up to be followed by a potluck. Four dogs lie calmly tethered on the front landing, watching an eclectic but energetic group perform tasks ranging from vacuuming to weeding. Loosely directed by Tina O’Donnell “disguised as Jerry Garcia” in a tie-dyed shirt of Ben & Jerry’s origin, two downstairs closets are emptied of various artifacts that evoke both the church’s history and neglect. There are objects of value (some handmade, antique footstools), objects of interest (handmade signs and old newspapers), and objects headed directly for Lynn Wakefield’s dump truck.

The backgrounds of the workers are diverse, but the spirit is universally upbeat. Ted Vogt is recent resident of the town, but with a fifty year history in the area. He is a lawyer with a specialty in arbitration, but the group hasn’t needed him for legal advice. “I’m here for my shoveling skills,” he quips.

Bill Garrard recently built a small home for his family “out in the sticks” two miles up the road from the church. He is originally from North Fayston, but bought land here because “you can’t touch property in the Mad River Valley these days.” His small family typifies the local diversity. His wife has a PhD in ornithology while he describes himself, with a laugh, as “a ditch-digger,” meaning that he can do whatever is required around a house, garden, or farm. He’s already repaired some of the church’s windows.

Scott Wakefield is proving a maestro of the shop vac as he attacks the accumulation of dust in the nooks and crannies of the downstairs storage closet. Around the farm he does “a little bit of just about everything.” As a computer science major from the University of Vermont, however, he is the farm’s unofficial IT expert. “You’d be surprised to learn how many ways a computer is used on the farm.”

Barb Gassner, planting day lilies that came from Alice Wakefield’s garden, sees a lot of the state in her job as a legal advocate in the office of Vermont’s Defender General. “West Brookfield may seem idyllic from the outside, but there are issues here like there are everywhere. This is not Stourbridge Village.”

“I’d like to think we are building and deepening community. The village needs a center, and the church has the potential to provide it,” she says.

Meanwhile, the dogs try to stay cool while the adults work up a sweat. Clumps of grass still grow in the dirt road where Eagle Peak Road intersects with Roxbury Line Road. Looking out at the town from the dusty second floor church window, you don’t have to squint too hard to be transported back to the 1800s.

But it’s far way from any declaration of victory. John Roe, taking a break from weed wacking, knows the perils. “It scares me to look too far into the future, because we are at such an embryonic stage. It’s hard to know if events to date have any relevance for the long term or for other communities.” The financial commitment to maintain the historic church “will either pull people together, or make it crash and burn. The key question is whether we have the right scale to pull this off.”

Tina O’Donnell, too, knows not to look too far ahead. “Right now we have some short-term goals, and some longer short-term goals,” she says. There’s a shed that needs some shoring up; trees that need to be trimmed; pew cushions that haven’t been laundered in years. “This project is nice, because the church involves the whole community. We still have our separate pieces, but there’s a spirit of working together that makes me feel proud.”

By Monday morning she will have emailed a summary of what she dubs “the BIG CLEAN”. Constant communication is a key ingredient in maintaining community enthusiasm. Nowadays, this means email, even though cable has yet to reach the small community.

For the moment, however, the sweat is real and the food is on its way. On a July day in a small Vermont hamlet all is calm, all is bright.

(Article by Stephen Morris. Photos by Sandy Levesque. This story was published originally in Vermont Magazine.)

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