Restoring their church and faith

Norma Parrish of Norwich, right, records video Sunday as she attends the United Congregational Church sanctuary celebration service in the newly renovated house of worship in Norwich.

Norwich - The United Congregational Church welcomed a new era Sunday with a celebration of its renovated sanctuary on Broadway that attracted a crowd of about 100 supporters.

Unfortunately, the Rev. John J. Lancz, the church's pastor, was unable to lead the ceremony recognizing $280,000 in sanctuary improvements after sustaining a back injury that left him in The William W. Backus Hospital. Lancz had planted a small tree Thursday, an effort that left him in severe pain over the weekend with back spasms.

Lancz's wife, Linda, said her husband's injury just encouraged more people to pitch in and finish work in preparation for the ceremony.

"It's a team here - it's a community here," she said. "That's what this church is about."

The congregation has been meeting in the church's basement for almost a year, ever since cracks were discovered in the building's ceilings and walls. Structural engineers said the ceiling was in danger of collapsing, and old chimneys behind walls on either side of the sanctuary also were buckling.

The state Historic Preservation Office's Historic Restoration Fund kicked in $125,000, which was matched by private donations and a loan from the Fellowship of Northeast Congregational Christian Churches.

The church, the result of a union of the Broadway Congregational Church and the Second Congregational Church in 1918, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was renovated by Gesco Inc. of Pleasant Valley, using structural plans by GNCB Consulting Engineers of Old Saybrook.

The 1855 church is located directly across the street from City Hall and was designed by the same architect, Evan Burdick, who also came up with the concept for the former Wauregan Hotel. The restored interior features distinctive black walnut woodwork and stained glass originally installed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

"In Norwich, we have a lot to preserve," said city Mayor Peter Nystrom at the hourlong ceremony. "To see the product of all this effort ... it's just a beautiful thing."

Among others who spoke were representatives of the Norwich chapter of the NAACP, the Greater Norwich Anti-Bullying Coalition, the American Friends of Kenya and the Chelsea Players, all of which use space in the church for various activities.

"It really serves as a community center," Mrs. Lancz said after the ceremony.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Norwich, which meets downstairs in the fellowship hall, will now be able to hold services at the same time as the Congregationalists. During renovations, the two churches were forced to share the basement space and hold separate services.

"Pack these pews," Unitarian clerk Dianne Daniels instructed the Congregationalists at the ceremony. "Let them see how much you appreciate the new sanctuary."

Mrs. Lancz said she expects the renovated space to draw more people than the 50 or so congregants the struggling church had managed in recent months. She was also grateful to the builders, who did extra work at no charge when damage to the 38-foot-high ceiling proved more extensive than had been expected.

"God was with us throughout the whole project," she said.


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