Historic church in New London ready to reach out for help

The Rev. Dr. Douglass Lind, interim priest at St. James Episcopal Church in New London, greets Sunday Mass parishioners
Buy Photo Tim Martin/The Day The Rev. Dr. Douglass Lind, interim priest at St. James Episcopal Church in New London, greets Sunday Mass parishioners

New London - On a Sunday morning about five years ago, Peter Stanley and his wife walked past St. James Episcopal Church on their way to Muddy Waters Café. They weren't active churchgoers, but Stanley's wife recognized St. James as a historic church and suggested they take a look inside.

The service had recently ended and people came up to the couple, welcoming them. Father Michel Belt, the church's rector, "appeared out of nowhere" and gave them a tour, said Stanley.

The experience overwhelmed Stanley and convinced him to start driving out from Old Saybrook every Sunday, and he's now the church's junior warden and the chairman of a committee planning renovations to the building.

"It's a rare place," he said, when trying to explain why he felt so drawn to St. James. "It's this combination of history and beauty and really gritty commitment to the community."

But physically, the history and beauty of the church have been at risk. A leaky roof damaged walls, led to standing water in the church and began to weaken the structure. The boiler is only 60 percent efficient and can no longer be relied upon to keep the church warm on winter mornings. The ends of the joists are rotting, creating a safety risk. And some of the church's beautiful Tiffany stained glass windows - Stanley said "some are among the best Tiffany ever did" - were installed around 1910 and need maintenance.

In response to those needs, the church hired a fundraising consultant and turned first to their parishioners.

They raised about $650,000 from around 300 parishioners and secured grants from the Frank Loomis Palmer Fund and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. Now, said Stanley, the church is hoping to raise money from a new group - community members who are not currently affiliated with the church.

"In its day it was a huge church and was a rich church," said Stanley, noting that the parish dates back to 1725. He hopes that families with some historic connection to St. James might be interested in helping to preserve the building.

Funds might also come from people with an interest in the church's art or its missions.

Stanley described St. James as a church that's "not afraid to get dirt under its fingernails" - the church houses 50 people a night in a homeless shelter on the first floor, feeds 75-100 a week through its food pantry and helps around 150 a week through its 12-step programs like Alcoholic Anonymous.

Homeless shelter moving

In addition to housing stained glass windows created by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the church's architecture is historically significant. Its Gothic Revival design was created by famous English architect Richard Upjohn in the mid-19th century. The building is included on the National Register of Historic Places.

"There is something special here … no one would build anything like this again," said Stanley, who believes a similar current project would be inauthentic and prohibitively expensive.

Another change is coming to the church: The independently-operated homeless shelter will be moving to a new home within a few months. The church will need to find a new purpose for the first floor, and Stanley said they plan to continue using it for community service.

Exactly what remains unclear - the church will be looking for suggestions from its parishioners and New London residents. Stanley described the chance to find a new purpose for the space a "wonderful opportunity" at a time when the church wants to become more proactive in engaging the community.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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