Members of tiny Episcopal church in Otis rebel at sale
OTIS — The small Episcopal church served a faithful few for nearly two centuries, spreading the Gospel in the southern Berkshires even as its congregation dwindled to about a dozen regular worshippers.
The inevitable came earlier this year, before summer-only services could begin, when the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts locked the church's doors, seized its meager assets, and put the shimmering white building on the market. And if anyone needed a reminder that times had changed, the Old North Church in Boston last month took back a Colonial chandelier it had donated to St. Paul's upon its founding.
Now, locked doors and for-sale signs have spurred part of the congregation to turn their angst into action. They have formed a nonprofit, hired an attorney, and are raising money to buy back St. Paul's and begin anew.
"They took away what was ours and what we had been managing for 180-odd years," said Geoff Pigman, chairman of the congregation's executive committee, whose ancestor preached at St. Paul's in the mid-19th century. "We are still very much committed to this place."
The simmering dispute pits congregants who opposed the closing — the resistance is not unanimous — against a Springfield-based diocese that has a dwindling base of about 5,000 weekly worshippers, about half its number in the 1960s, Episcopal officials said. About 10 churches in the diocese have closed since 2009, part of a larger contraction occurring across mainline denominations.
In St. Paul's, officials saw a sparsely patronized church with prohibitively high repair costs that served an aging congregation. The church has never been heated or winterized, there is no plumbing, and making coffee often accounted for a good portion of the electricity.
The diocese is willing to listen to purchase offers from the congregants, said Steven Abdow, the diocesan canon for mission resources, who said the closing was unfortunate but necessary.
"It's not unusual in the church these days to have the financial and human resources run dry," Abdow said.
The diocese received the backing of Steve Burrall of Longmeadow, a former chairman of the St. Paul's executive committee.
"Would I like to have seen the church stay open? Sure, but our parishioners — since it's nobody's home parish, a vacation parish — were getting older and dying and not coming anymore," Burrall said.
But where some people see a cash drain that would only get worse, Pigman and his supporters see a sublime place of prayer whose value — both spiritual and historic — cannot be quantified by dollars and cents.
"I certainly feel very hurt by the whole thing," said Pat Constantinos, who played the antique pump organ at St. Paul's for more than 20 years. "I go by the church now and make a conscious effort not to look at it."
Now, the organ is gone, too — transported to the diocesan seat at Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield.
Constantinos, whose late husband preached at St. Paul's, said she sensed as soon as she walked into a meeting this summer with Bishop Douglas J. Fisher that the closing was irrevocable. Still, she asked Fisher: "Would you rather sell this to a secular company than let committed Christians try to keep it open?"
Pigman, who also met with Fisher, echoed her feeling that the diocese had reached its decision before hearing from opponents. "Our concerns were met with indifference and disinterest," Pigman said.
"It's not that they took it. It's the way they took it," added Henry Wingate, vice president of the Otis Historical Society, who is not a member of St. Paul's.
Otis residents donated the land and built the church, but the diocese holds the title to the property, Pigman said. The church is priced to sell at $99,000 and has been shown to potential buyers every day since the building and its eight-tenths of an acre went on the market in October, said Tom Garvey, the listing agent for Benchmark Real Estate.
In all, the property is valued at $174,000, he said. At that low price, some residents in this rural town of 1,600 people are concerned that an important piece of its past will be bought quickly, dramatically remodeled, and possibly demolished for housing.
"If someone bought it, what would they do with it?" asked 69-year-old Gordon Sargent, who retired to Otis.
Garvey said St. Paul's is generating interest as a second home, although one that would need at least $150,000 in basic amenities such as plumbing and insulation before "cosmetics" are added.
"The people calling have a real sense of the history of it and want to preserve" its exterior, he said. Town officials have not shown any appetite in purchasing the building, the real estate agent added.
"It'd be a shame if someone knocked it down and put up a condo," Garvey said.
Pigman and others are working to prevent that outcome. The nonprofit group they have formed, the Association for St. Paul's Otis, hopes to raise about $200,000 to cover the purchase price, repairs, and some ongoing preservation.
If the group succeeds, services would be held once again inside the church. And perhaps the town would agree to a partnership, Pigman said, in which cultural events and civic meetings could be held there.
The group also plans to reach out to Old North Church for assistance. Pigman believes the iconic North End church acted in good faith — without knowledge of the dispute — when it packed up the chandelier, along with an old pulpit and a prayer desk.
"They helped us a long, long time ago," Pigman said. "I'm hoping that once again their congregation will see us as a daughter congregation."