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Christ Episcopal parishioners bid farewell to Norwich building

“A funeral service for the church, but also a service of resurrection,” is how the Rev. Stacey Kohl, Priest-in-Charge of Christ Episcopal Church in Norwich, described the final worship gathering held May 30 in the historic Washington Street building.

The first in-person service in the church since March 2020 due to the COVID pandemic was also its last, as parishioners in a remote Zoom meeting in April decided to close the house of worship for good.

“It’s been sad, it’s been hard,” admits Kohl, in a phone interview conducted before the service. “But there is also a sense of hope. We believe in the end love wins, and we are following faithfully in what God is calling us to do. We don’t always know the whole path, we only know the next faithful step.”

Kohl says a dwindling membership of between 35 and 40 people, plus the task of maintaining a “very large, very beautiful historic church was really challenging. Are we really able to live up to God’s mission when we’re spending so much money keeping the lights on,” she asked rhetorically.

Discussions regarding the future of the church began last fall, just before the pandemic hit. Church officials and members met with the Episcopal Church Diocese in Connecticut to share options and ideas. Kohl says it became apparent that closure was the next step.

“The pandemic hastened the conversation,” she said. “We all agreed this was an issue we had to face. Maybe it would’ve happened a year or two down the road without COVID.”

The final service included reminiscences from those who have deep connections to the church.

Anastasia Lillpopp says she was “literally born and raised” at Christ Episcopal. She says her mother was pregnant with her while attending church there. Lillpopp says she was baptized at Christ Episcopal, and had hoped to be married there and see her children married there as well.

Her grandfather, the Rev. Donald Lillpopp, was rector from 1980-1998.

“Thank you to my church family,” said Anastasia during the farewell service. “You’re not just people I met at church. You’re literally my family. You don’t need a church to worship God. You just need to show up and worship in whatever way is right for you.

“Everything’s going to be OK. It’s part of God’s will that (this church closure) is happening.”

Much personal history

Jonathan Potter’s father was an organist at Christ Episcopal for 65 years. The younger Potter says he has a “lot of memories” associated with the church. Both he and his sister were baptized and married there. Their parents also tied the knot at Christ Episcopal. Potter says he and his sister sang in the church choir, were acolytes, and he ran a Boy Scout troop out of the church, as well as being involved in the Young People’s Fellowship.

“We were involved in the church all our lives,” he said.

The church has a long history. The parish was formed in 1747, when a small wooden church building was built on the current site. The parish outgrew the building, and it moved to a Main Street location in 1789.

Church officials then decided to move back to their original Washington Street location, where the current church was built in the late 1840s. The land. though, had since become the site of a cemetery, so the remains were disinterred, and the tombstones were removed, and have been very well preserved, to this day, in the basement of the church. “The remains of the church’s first rector, and most likely others associated with the early history of the church were buried under the altar, when the new church was built,” said Kohl.

The state archaeologist, along with state and local historical representatives in 2011, unearthed, cleaned, and catalogued the headstones, before returning them back to the church’s cellar.

The current church building was consecrated in 1849. Many of its original stained glass windows had to be replaced after the disasterous Van Tassel chemical warehouse fire in the city in 1963.

Christ Church then merged with the former Church of the Resurrection in Norwich in 1999 to officially become Christ Episcopal Church.

Even though the church is now closed, don’t expect to see any “for sale” signs on the building anytime soon.

“It’s still consecrated as a church,” said Kohl.

The Mission Council of the state Episcopal Church Diocese will now be in charge of managing the parish, and deciding what to do with the archives, church amenities, and especially the historic tombstones.

“It’s working with Episcopal archivist Greg Farr. The hope is to give the perfectly preserved gravemarkers to a museum or historical society, hopefully on the local level. We’re not looking to auction them off to the Feds!,” Kohl said.

Kohl says articles such as chalices, candlesticks, processional crosses, and clergy vestments are expected to be donated to other parishes. She says there’s a lot of material to sort through, including church records dating back to the 1740s. There’s also the question as to what the church’s responsibility is to the human remains buried under the church.

She says there’s always the possibility the building could re-open again as a house of worship.

“The future use of the building is very much open,” she said. “We’ll have to be sitting and listening to God as to what God’s dream is for the property. We’re balancing between the quaint sadness we feel at the closing of this particular community, and the dream of what God’s up to next.”

Kohl has led Christ Episcopal Church since September 2019. She says she’ll continue overseeing the closure of the parish, as well as being the Interim Communications Specialist for the state Episcopal Church Diocese.

She then plans to take a little “breather.’

“Much like the parish, I am very open to what God will put before me next.”

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