At churches, it's let us pray - for repairs

New London - The massive stained glass window behind the altar at St. James Episcopal Church is coming loose.

"The job was poorly done ten years ago, the company is now out of business and the window is about to fall out again," said senior church warden Alma Peterson, speaking Sunday of the most recent repairs to the aging window designed by renowned artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The congregation is scrambling now to repair that Tiffany window and another donated by Lawrence & Memorial Hospital founder Sebastian Lawrence.

The small congregation is slowly raising money to finance the repairs, which could cost more than $100,000, Peterson said. After those are complete, the church has its sights set on a burdensome boiler that must be replaced.

In New London, St. James' woes are not uncommon.

All eight of the churches in New London's Downtown National Register Historic District have similar troubles, said Sandra Kersten Chalk, executive director of New London Landmarks, which led two tours through the eight churches on Sunday afternoon. Nearly all were built in the 19th century, many by prominent architects, Chalk said.

"People aren't paying attention to these beautiful churches," Chalk said. "They are such important pieces of the historic district, both in terms of their past and what they do for the community. What would we do without them?"

The "Sacred Spaces" event on Sunday, which drew several dozen people split into two groups, is part of an ongoing effort by New London Landmarks to raise awareness of the eight downtown churches, many which have substantially smaller congregations than when they were originally built.

Today, few of the eight churches could finance a complete renovation, let alone a single project. Last summer, church groups from Virginia and South Carolina came to Huntington Street Baptist Church to help strip old paint from the belfry and facade.

"With the help of their equipment and volunteers, we only had to pay for the paint," said Pastor Byron "Bud" Westbrook, who has led the Huntington Street church since 1995.

Across the street at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation, members of the congregation are used to working on a budget. During the original construction of the Tudor-style church, plans for a choir loft were scrapped, leaving a ledge above the main entrance but no way to get to it. In the 1940s, the land behind the church was sold for $600 to keep the fiscally-challenged congregation afloat.

Today, All Souls is making repairs to the furnace because replacing it outright would prove too costly.

"It wouldn't be much of a problem in July, but it is in January," said churchgoer Paul Shaffer. "But we do our best to keep it patched up."

Historic churches

Churches in New London's Downtown National Register Historic District and their building dates:

• Huntington Street Baptist Church (1843): 29 Huntington St.

• First Congregational Church (1850): 66 Union St.

• St. James Episcopal Church (1850): Huntington and Federal streets

• First Baptist Church (1856): 268 State St.

• Second Congregational Church (1870): 45 Broad St.

• St. Mary Star of the Sea (1876): 10 Huntington St.

• Apostolic Cathedral of Hope (1882): 157 Green St.

• All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation (1910): 60 Huntington St.

Source: New London Landmarks

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