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First Church Amherst widens its welcome

Congregation celebrates completion of project that makes space more accessible

  • The Rev. Vicki Kemper waits for the members of the First Church Amherst to gather in the renovated narthex for a blessing.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ivy tillman gets off the new elevator of the First Church Amherst. The elevator is part of recently completed renovations that were celebrated on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. While new wheelchair-access buttons allow the front door to be opened automatically now, the elevator in the narthex allows people who struggle with stairs to enter through the back of the church, where the parking lot is, instead of being dropped off out front. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Members of First Church Amherst at services on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, as seen through a doorway that was made wider during the church’s “Widening the Welcome” project.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Rev. Vicki Kemper leads a blessing with members of First Church Amherst inside the recently renovated narthex on Sunday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ivy tillman waits to get on the new elevator at the First Church Amherst. The elevator was part of a million-dollar renovation, the completion of which was celebrated on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, at the church. While new wheelchair-access buttons allow the front door to be opened automatically now, the elevator in the narthex allows people who struggle with stairs to enter through the back of the church, where the parking lot is, instead of being dropped off out front. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Umar Faruq leans on the railing in the renovated narthex of First Church Amherst on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Linda Smith and Melanie Blood, members of First Church Amherst, cut a cake celebrating renovations that make the church more handicapped accessible on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



For the Bulletin
Thursday, January 11, 2018

AMHERST — A generous bequest, a successful capital campaign and a collaborative congregation has made First Church Amherst’s 150-year-old building more accessible and safe.

The 165 Main St. church’s million-dollar “Widening the Welcome” project was deemed complete Sunday after about seven months of construction, but years of planning.

An elevator, widened doorways and a new fire alarm system, bathroom and renovated narthex now grace the building.

It was built in 1886, with the initial construction overseen by Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin.

After Sunday’s regular worship service, the Rev. Vicki Kemper, pastor of the 279-year-old congregation, led the group in blessing the additions. In the renovated narthex — a type of lobby or entrance typically located in the western section of a church — the crowd packed together and prayed, illuminated by natural light from the new windows.

“As those who came before us were blessed by the communities of faith that sustained them, so we have been blessed, so we have been sustained, so we have come this far by faith,” Kemper said.

She continued: “God is in all things and people. God is present in every place. And still it is right to bless these new and renovated places, to declare them holy, to dedicated them to the service of God’s people.”

The $1 million bequest that made the project possible came from the estate of Dr. Benjamin and Marjorie White, who were married at the church and died in 2005 and 2009, respectively. Marjorie had grown up going to the church as a child, and the congregation became an important part of the couple’s life.

In 2014, the church, also known as First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, started a capital campaign to raise more money for improvements to the building. The campaign was successful and, according to Kemper, the church still has money left in the budget.

“We actually added a couple things that we didn’t originally plan on doing, but had wanted to — bathroom upgrades,” Kemper said after the service.

After the blessing in the narthex, the congregation moved to the church lounge for a celebration, where they fondly remembered the Whites and acknowledged the many other members of the congregation involved in “Widening the Welcome.”

“Over and over again we have reached out for each other and for the mission Vicki held out for us,” said Church moderator Russ Vernon-Jones, 70, of Amherst.

Each person who talked complimented another. When Vernon-Jones acknowledged the work of the co-chairpersons of the capital campaign, Catherine Kay and Ralph Faulkingham, Faulkingham stood up, only to reciprocate the appreciation.

“We’ve been so blessed in this time of potential discord to have had Russ as our moderator. His essential attention to building and maintaining consensus in the face of strongly held and opposing positions has been a wonderful gift of love for our church,” Faulkingham, 74, of Pelham, said.

There were apparently debates over what the money would be used for, but, in the end, many felt that making the building more handicapped-accessible and easier to navigate was the right call.

Douglas Marshall, the chair of First Church Amherst’s building committee, was cited by Vernon-Jones as instrumental in ensuring that the project would be done successfully and that the congregation would stay united. Marshall worked with the town to guarantee the project would satisfy all building code requirements and, when necessary, hammered out the kinks.

“He was a steady upbeat presence in the face of uncertainty and a confident, calm reassurance through the long timeline,” said Vernon-Jones of Marshall’s work with the congregation and its various groups.

Others mentioned at the celebration were congregation member Gerry Peterson, who persistently called for an easier way for people who struggled to get up the church’s stairs, and Chris Farley, the project’s architect from Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst. The project was managed by D.A. Sullivan & Sons, Inc. in Northampton.

“It’s always satisfying to see a project come to completion and successful fruition; it doesn’t happen every day,” Farley said. “I do want to say it’s been a pleasure working with the town and the church.”

Of the dozens of people at the church Sunday, many expressed happiness with the project’s results, especially the elevator.

While new wheelchair-access buttons allow the front door to be opened automatically now, the elevator in the narthex allows people who struggle with stairs to enter through the back of the church, where the parking lot is, instead of being dropped off out front.

“People have been asking how to get in and I’ve been telling them you have to go around front,” said Katie Tolles, 68, of Shutesbury. “There was a lot of things we could have done but what was important was to have the church be open and accessible to all.”

Don Scott, who is not a member of the congregation, visits the church on occasion. Scott visited the church Sunday to take part in the celebration, because he likes the idea of the new features, and thinks the “Widening the Welcome” project is an indication of the congregation’s strength as a unit.

“It is tremendous and the thing about it is the group melded together so well, even though there are a lot of people with differences,” said Scott, 88, of Chicopee. “When you walk through that narthex and see that light coming through that window — I first saw it this morning and it just knocked my socks off. It was so beautiful.”