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South Deerfield church to close

Parishioners vote to close nearly 200-year-old UCC establishment at year’s end

  • Jack Cooper, a member of South Deerfield Congregational Church, pulls the rope to ring the bell. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • The pipe organ inside South Deerfield Congregational Church. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Bibles inside South Deerfield Congregational Church, which announced on April 24, 2016 that the building's doors will close for the last time at the end of the year. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • The South Deerfield Congregational Church will close its doors at the end of year due to declining membership. ANDY CASTILLO/the recorder

  • Jack Cooper, a member of South Deerfield Congregational Church, walks through the auditorium. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • The bell inside South Deerfield Congregational Church. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Tulips adorn the windows inside South Deerfield Congregational Church, which has been around for almost 200 years and announced on April 24, 2016 that the building's doors will close for the last time at the end of the year. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • South Deerfield Congregational Church, which has been around for almost 200 years, announced on April 24, 2016 that the building's doors will close for the last time at the end of the year. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • The view from the balcony inside South Deerfield Congregational Church. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • The sun sets over South Deerfield Congregational Church, which will close at the end of the year. ANDY CASTILLO/THE RECORDER

  • The sun sets over South Deerfield Congregational Church, which will close at the end of the year. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo



For the Gazette
Thursday, June 02, 2016

SOUTH DEERFIELD — At the top of a shaky ladder, above the backlit hands of the tower clock, the ancient bell of the South Deerfield Congregational Church peacefully slumbers in a small, dust-covered room in the steeple, overlooking the quiet village of South Deerfield.

Then, as if shaken into wakefulness, the bell turns on its side, swings on a hinge, and resounds a long, somber melody from its iron mouth.

The bell can be heard for miles and is the anthem of the church, which has been a place of solace in the community for almost 200 years.

However, despite the church’s rich history, its future is uncertain. On April 24, members voted to discontinue regular church ministries in the building.

“It was a long, deliberate, prayerful process,” says Jack Cooper, co-moderator of the church. He sits in a blue room with pale yellow curtains, lit by sunlight filtering in through the window.

“The way it’s perceived by some people is that this was a failure,” he continued. “But that’s the exact opposite of what happened. This was a faithful response to reality. It was not a failure.”

The church, which was founded in the 1800s, has suffered dwindling membership as churchgoers either stopped attending or died. According to Cooper, church attendance is declining all over New England. Faith communities are getting smaller because people aren’t connecting as much.

The possibility of closing its doors for good was considered over a course of 15 months. Meetings were held, statistics were investigated, numbers were crunched, and it was decided the church would close at the end of 2016.

“We’ve used the expression ‘we’re four good volunteers away from extinction,’” Cooper said, “and that’s what happened. Our situation is a classic, an aging population. You can drive through these towns, and there are closed churches everywhere.”

In the auditorium, tulips decorate the windows, sunlight casts shadows onto the pews and massive pipes from a fully mechanical organ dominate the wall behind the pulpit. The space has a simple beauty to it.

The closing is unfortunate — and not only because the space is beautiful.

“You’ve got a nearly 200-year-old congregation who has found this to be a place of comfort and sustenance, and that’s a tragedy,” Cooper said, while standing on a balcony overlooking the rows of pews. “Not the building.”

In 1848, the structure was moved a few miles down the road to where it is today, on a small plot of land just outside of town. Now, the congregation is deciding what will happen after the final Sunday service.

Members of the church voted on three motions during a final meeting. First, they acknowledged the reality of their situation. Then, they voted to close the regular meetings of the church at the end of the year, and finally, they committed to shaping the church’s legacy after it closes.

“That’s the process we’re starting now,” Cooper said. “But there are no answers at this point. What we’re realizing is that it may not be as simple as exercising our will.”

The state has regulations in place regarding what churches can and cannot do after they close. The church congregation can make suggestions or requests, but the final say is not necessarily up to the members.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that the attorney general is really in the driver’s seat,” Cooper said.

The attorney general’s office protects the rights of donors to the church who may not be alive anymore. “We want it to be a real legacy that continues long after the church is no longer meeting together.”

The attorney general’s office looks at annual reports, financial records and records of past donations, which might have been given for a specific reason.

Because the church is a United Church of Christ affiliate, it is receiving counsel and advice from the organization about what to do next.

Cooper said the next step is to hire an attorney who knows how to navigate the legal process and help make sure the church’s property and assets go to the right places.

“There’s just a lot of history there,” Pat Graves, who first started attending the church in the 1950s, said later. “My husband’s parents were pillars of the church for many, many years. They moved into the area in the 1920s.

“It has had a big impact in our lives, and it certainly will be missed,” she said, adding, “But things change. The church is not the building.”