Iconic church in New London getting a new owner

New London — The stately First Congregational Church building, a downtown fixture for 164 years whose flock can trace its origins back to the 17th century, will soon be in the hands of new owners.

On Sunday, congregants voted to allow the church's leadership to move forward with plans to sell the building to Engaging Heaven Church, which has shared the sanctuary space in recent years.

"The basic proposal is that we would sell the building to Engaging Heaven and we would retain the right to continue to worship in the space," said Catherine Zall, pastor of the First Congregational Church. "The goal is to preserve the building, and we're a wonderful congregation but we just don't have the financial resources to invest in the building."

Zall said her congregation, which includes about 50 active members, wanted to be sure it could preserve its five-days-a-week free breakfast program to help the homeless and could continue to hold Sunday services at its historical home.

"The church is the people who gather together and worship and our hope is that providing someone else the opportunity to take care of the building lets us focus on being the kind of vibrant, engaged, and hopefully prophetic church we want to be," she said. "We're not closing up, we're not getting any smaller; we're excited about what we're doing, but we just can't really do justice to this kind of building we're in."

Zall said the building will be sold for $250,000, though the two churches still have to iron out the details and go through the legal process of selling the property.

"The short-term financial implications are important, but really what was the key in this decision was that a very beautiful but very old building like that needs a tremendous amount of work, hundreds of thousands of dollars are needed to maintain that building," Zall said. "Given the size and focus of our congregation, we're not in the position to invest in the building. It needs to be invested in and Engaging Heaven is actually quite excited about investing in the building."

James Levesque, pastor of Engaging Heaven Church, said he is thrilled about the purchase and the possibilities that come with it. He said about 180 people regularly attend Engaging Heaven Church, but that special events can attract as many as 500 people.

"We're looking forward to having the space to allow us to do more for the community and enhance our current worship experience," Levesque said. "There will be some renovations we're going to do to the building, but that's still all down the road."

In 2011, the two churches began sharing the old stone building for Sunday services, with First Congregational holding its Sunday services at 9:30 a.m. and Engaging Heaven conducting its services at 11 a.m.

"We are definitely two separate congregations, we're very different but we both need a place to worship, and really what our arrangement has been is for us to take this beautiful old building and share it," Zall said. "We were the owners and they were sort of the tenants. And now it will kind of flip and Engaging Heaven will own the building and our expectation is that we will be able to continue to worship in that space."

According to New London Landmarks, the European gothic revival church building, which sits at the corner of State and Union streets, was completed in 1850 under the direction of prominent architect Leopold Eidlitz. Eidlitz later worked with Frederick Law Olmsted on the redesign of the New York state capitol.

"That church has such a rich history, and it's beautiful," Levesque said. "Those old churches were built to house people for worship and we're excited to see that intent go forward for future generations."

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

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