Lighthouse Church Continues in Building
Members of the First Baptist Church in Montpelier, established in 1865, have closed their church after struggling with declining enrollment for several years and the financial burdens of maintaining the historic building on the corner of St. Paul and School streets.
“We were living on a shoestring,” member Alan Williams from Barre reflects. “We’d get oil in, and then need another $1,500 for fuel again in 10 days, then sometimes there would be six people there for worship.” Francis Brooks, a former legislator, teacher, and church deacon, remarks, “The church has always functioned by individual efforts, and we learned over the years how to deal with a shortage of people, but finally we decided to dissolve the church. It was a very sad day.”
One strategy that kept the Baptist Church doors open since 2013 was to sell the building to the Lighthouse Church, established in 1991, whose members had been renting and sought a permanent home. Both congregations shared the space; this arrangement allowed the Baptists to continue rent-free in their old building. The Baptist parsonage was sold in 2009 to help the First Baptist congregation stay afloat financially.
Eventually, though, the members, about 30 of them, met in November 2019 with their longest-serving pastor, Steven V. Seipke, and voted to close their church.
A long and dedicated service to the community from 1865 to 2019 emerges from the church history, compiled by members over the years and kept by the Brooks family. Brooks, who joined the church in 1967 and became a deacon in 1980, remembers that the proximity to Union Elementary School “gave kids a place to hang out after school.” Vacation Bible School, the “Good News Club” and “Crafty Critters” for young people were well attended and all staffed by volunteers.
It was an active church. Members remember a community nativity scene, concerts, monthly hymn sings, fall corn roasts, men’s prayer breakfasts at a local Howard Johnson’s restaurant, Christmas caroling parties, potluck suppers (with a cookbook!), and summer joint services with the Methodists. The women’s group, named for “Mother” Ama P. Hibbard, a charter member of the church and a teacher in the Sunday school for 40 years, engaged in benevolent projects for Baptist missions around the world, rummage sales, tying quilts, and packing “missionary barrels.” Memorial windows around the sanctuary testify to the efforts of many people.
Longtime Montpelier residents will recognize many names from the First Baptist Church history, such as musicians Bob Jackman, Bev Keck, John Lincoln, and Steve Morse. The Montpelier Community Gospel Choir, still active today and led by John Harrison, was founded by Rev. Fred H. Shapiro and Andy Shapiro at First Baptist in 1995. (vtgospel.com)
There was once great energy and support, the congregation giving over a million dollars in 1988. Alan Williams remembers raising money for foreign missions, helping with infrastructure improvements and education in Uganda. “Through the Village2Village project in Bristol, Vermont we sponsored a young woman in Uganda to become a doctor, and she later came to Vermont for a visit. “(village2villageproject.org) His wife, Diane Williams, reports that these efforts, still important in their lives, were almost their biggest blessing. “The greatest, though,” she said, “was when Alan and I met at church in 1981 and were married there.” (Alan Williams concurs.)
Serving the local community was also an important mission of the church. In 1983, First Baptist pastor James Bennett co-founded with other clergy the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, which continues to serve the unhoused in our communities. Reached at his home in Maine, Rev. Bennett says, “We deeply regret that the Montpelier church has been dissolved.” Also during his tenure, a monthly Heaton House ministry program reached out to residents. First Baptists also worked in community efforts such as O.U.R. House in Barre, and the Montpelier Food Pantry. The Ugandan efforts are still important to former members, and some are searching for new “church homes” now that things are opening up from more than a year of pandemic restrictions.
Over the years, members raised funds for substantial improvements to the historic building — a new grand piano in 1984; a rebuild of the 1906 pipe organ in 1971; a lighted star on the building for Christmas; major renovations to the furnace, roof, and steeple; and the building of a lift. A fire in 1946 necessitated two years of repair, during which time worshippers met in the school auditorium. Learning in 1961 that the foundation lay on the site of a former pond, with landfill from the Barre quarries, church members raised the funds to raise and secure the structure in time for the Baptist State Convention three years later.
One winter night in 1976, Brooks remembers, “I got a call in the middle of the night. It was 30 below, the pipes froze, and the radiators blew up. It was a real mess. We worshipped at Bethany Church that winter.”
The current owners of the building, members of the Lighthouse Church, have continued to make improvements with a new roof, and more work after burst pipes — once again — caused water damage to the sanctuary. They held services in the basement. Pastor Susan Salameh from Barre is thankful for the opportunity. “For us, it is sacred ground. It’s a perfect fit, and our being there is a great joy. We honor the history of this place.”
Alan Williams keeps the old papers and photos from the 250-year history of First Baptist at his Barre home. Old photographs reveal a second steeple, the bell tower, and old beams. The suspended ceiling that was installed obscured the inspirational Bible verses that had been painted on the walls around the perimeter, which he saw when he climbed up into the steeple years ago.
He remarks, “We may be gone, but the Bible verses are probably still there.”
Linda Radtke lives in Middlesex.
Thanks to Francis Brooks, Diane and Alan Williams, James Bennett, Susan Salameh, and John Lazenby.