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A Celebration of the Old Meeting House: Fifty years since its revival commemorated

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From The Breeze

by Nathan Grutchfieldfriendsmeetinghouse3

This past May, the Old Meeting House in East Montpelier celebrated 50 years as an active congregation for members of the Central Vermont community. Although, it should be noted, the church’s history goes significantly further back than 1966, and even dates to the time when East Montpelier and Montpelier existed as one town.

When the then-called East Montpelier Center White Church was constructed in 1823, its location was reasoned by a strong belief that the population of the town would become centered in that area. Indeed, there were fertile agricultural fields surrounding the spot, attracting early settlers like Parley Davis, who had owned and donated the section of land on which the Old Meeting House itself would be built.

However, the ensuing years demonstrated this prediction to be wrong, as an increasing amount of people began to settle near the river rather than in the farmland. The Old Meeting House struggled to sustain congregation, having to compete with newly built churches next to the river. What was then just one town, Montpelier, became divided in budget-spending interests among the different demographics, and in 1848, the population center by the river petitioned the legislature to split Montpelier into two towns, a wish that the legislature soon granted.

Meanwhile, the White Church, or, as it was also called, the Center Church, was a site of only occasional gatherings. To compare, anyone familiar with the Old Meeting House in the present-day is well-aware of the high degree of frequency by which the Old Meeting House hosts bustling community events, including weekly worships. But at this point in the mid-1800s, and lasting until the mid-1900s, there was so little in the way of congregation at the site that letters from the Church Committee to families in the surrounding area in late 1965 seemed desperate in their request for more members to participate in the church’s sessions. This was at the beginning of the church’s gathering on a full-time basis, which would prove to an enormously defining point in the history of the now-termed Old Meeting House of East Montpelier Center.

Between 1966 and 1975 a total of 69 new members joined the Old Meeting House, to add to around 40 who were charter members. In 1970 electricity was installed, and around the same time the church’s Sunday School saw an increasing number of youth participants which inspired plans to build a new community building that was approved in 1975. 

The church had some economic difficulties early on, and also saw a decrease in active participation in the late seventies that led to serious considerations to close the church. Yet through it all, the Old Meeting House persevered to reach far better times, growing into a sizable institution of the East Montpelier, and Central Vermont, communities.

Current minister Elissa Johnk reflects on what the 50-year anniversary is celebrating exactly, by saying, “[the Old Meeting House] has grown, and grown rather spectacularly — not just in numbers, but I think in its understanding of its place in the community … the Old Meeting House works hard — harder than any congregation I’ve seen — to make sure we live into our inclusiveness statement, honoring all people as neighbors — no exceptions.” Indeed, in recent years the church has been involved with activities such as a youth mission trip to Boston, the studying of what it means to be an Open and Affirming Church*, as well as the marriage of Johnk and her wife, commemorated by the planting of a serviceberry tree in the garden at the Old Meeting House.

The lengthy journey that the Old Meeting House has undergone to reach this day of celebration, persisting through bleak years in the midst of unfortunate logistical situations, has been unquestionably filled with important lessons regarding the sustainability of an institution within a community. One such moral suggests that by promoting positive messages of acceptance to its surrounding area, the Old Meeting House has consequently done well for itself, attracting people from surrounding towns with this well-developed outreach method.

In any case, on Saturday, May 21, the Old Meeting House celebrated its history with an evening of entertainment, music, and fine dining, followed by a worship service the following day. It was a notable weekend for the church, to say the least, and one in which members, new and old, reflected on the past 50 years as well as anticipated what future gatherings will hold. More information regarding the celebration may be found at www.oldmeetinghouse.org by clicking on the 50 Years of Following the Star tab.

*An Open and Affirming Church is a designation given to churches incorporating the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

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