New London congregations partner to keep church open

Derek Talley of Westerly points out the location of a tool for a fellow member of Engaging Heaven Church while he and Chris Johnson of Groton hang a new light bar Saturday in First Congregational Church of New London. The two congregations will soon be sharing the church building.
Derek Talley of Westerly points out the location of a tool for a fellow member of Engaging Heaven Church while he and Chris Johnson of Groton hang a new light bar Saturday in First Congregational Church of New London. The two congregations will soon be sharing the church building. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

New London - A revivalist church that is less than 2 years old is teaming up with a Congregational church whose roots go back hundreds of years.

Congregants of Engaging Heaven Church, which opened in a storefront on Masonic Street about 18 months ago, plan to start worshiping on Sundays at the stately First Congregational Church at Union and State streets.

"It's terrific, I'm very excited,'' said Catherine Zall, pastor of First Congregational, whose membership at the downtown church has dwindled over the years.

"We are using this as opportunity to update the church. This kind of partnership makes us a sustainable,'' Zall said.

With less than 50 members, the church has struggled to keep open the cavernous building, built in 1840. Last year, they never turned on the heat in the sanctuary and held their Sunday services in the church hall.

"We have no money,'' Zall said. "It's hard to maintain this building."

James Levesque, pastor of Engaging Heaven, had never been inside the First Congregational Church, even though it's less than a block from his worship center. He can see the bell tower and steeple from his office window.

His congregation has grown to about 130, and he said he needed to find more space for Sunday services, Bible studies and special events featuring nationally known evangelists that can draw in hundreds.

He said he approached Zall about a partnership, offering to pay for heat in the winter and help with maintenance, inside and out.

"In my heart, I'm so excited to see the building get love and use,'' he said. "It's almost like a revival."

The two congregations will share the space, with First Congregational holding its Sunday services at 9 a.m. and Engaging Heaven conducting its services at 11 a.m.

"We'll start earlier, they'll start later,'' Zall said.

During a recent visit to the Gothic Revival-style church, Levesque said he is overwhelmed with the history of the church and the opportunity he's been given.

He and Zall decided to "lay down their differences'' in philosophies for the good of both parishes and agreed on a two-year lease.

"We have the same values. We agree on the essentials,'' he said.

Levesque's congregation has painted the fellowship hall, power-washed the wooden doors, polished the wooden pews in the 700-seat sanctuary and installed a new sound system and big screen monitors on either side the altar.

They've pruned the hedges and trees on the grounds, pulled weeds and planted new shrubs and some lilies. He said his congregation has raised $25,000 for renovations and equipment.

"It's a work in progress,'' he said.

Meanwhile Saturday, members of Engaging Heaven were still painting, hanging lights and doing other work around the church yard.

Levesque said he wants to open up the building to the public and make it an active participant in downtown life.

He wants to invite people into the church during Sailfest and be part other seasonal downtown food strolls.

"I'm so excited for the building to be used again,'' he said.

Engaging Heaven will hold a dedication service on Father's Day, June 19, but it also honor the history of the church and the graciousness of its members.

First Church also will continue offering free breakfast five mornings a week to the homeless. Levesque said his congregation plans to help.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

Nora Dutcher of Norwich and fellow members of the Engaging Heaven Church paint the entry of the First Congregational Church of New London's fellowship hall.
Nora Dutcher of Norwich and fellow members of the Engaging Heaven Church paint the entry of the First Congregational Church of New London's fellowship hall. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
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