New Awakening: Congregation left legacy building to find solvency
New London - "Wrenching" is the word that the Rev. Matthew McCaffrey uses to describe the decision of congregants of the Second Congregational Church to give away their building.
He said they had been in that building for more than 100 years. "They'd been through two fires and built and rebuilt. It was wrenching, but it felt to them like they didn't want to give it up but knew they couldn't keep it up," said McCaffrey, pastor of the worshippers who conveyed - free of charge - their legacy building at Hempstead and Broad streets to Miracle Temple Church in the spring of 2013.
Two months later they moved to Crossroads Presbyterian Church on Cross Road in Waterford, where they lease space.
This summer, as part of "its fresh start," Second Congregational changed its name to Waterford Congregational United Church of Christ.
McCaffrey, who was hired as a part-time pastor in the fall of 2011, said economics forced the decision.
With fewer members, escalating costs for utilities and maintenance, and a badly bruised endowment following the nation's 2008 financial collapse, the congregation could no longer afford its 500-seat church, McCaffrey said.
Annual utilities and maintenance alone were about $150,000, and with about 120 members - fewer than 50 of them active - the expenses were overwhelming.
"A full third of our budget was going to heating and lighting, and then there was maintenance on top of that," he said.
More than a decade ago, the city's First Congregational Church at State and Union streets and Second Congregational, just a third of a mile away, considered consolidating. But when members of both churches voted, the measure failed by one vote.
The two shared roots. In 1835, First Congregational approved a request from several members to form a second church "uptown" from the mother church.
Now, with Second Congregational already relocated to Waterford, First Congregational is in the process of selling its property to Engaging Heaven Church for $250,000.
At the heart of the decision to give away the building was concern by parishioners at Second Congregational that their church continue to be used for religious purposes, and that memorials there, like one to the crew of the USS Thresher, the submarine lost at sea in 1963, be preserved.
"We didn't want it to end up a brew pub," McCaffrey said.
For a time, members studied the possibility of operating the church as an arts venue, but eventually determined that was not feasible. And there were discussions with a longtime church tenant, the Drop-In Learning Center, to explore whether Drop-In might assume ownership of the property and the church become its tenant.
It turned out that the learning center didn't have the financial wherewithal to maintain the church building, either.
So when a real estate agent told Second Congregational leaders that without another church in the wings to buy the property, there was virtually no market for it, the fellowship changed its thinking.
"We weren't even sure what our congregation's future would be, but it just seemed clearer and more definitive to say, 'OK, we're just going to give this building away,'" said McCaffrey.
And that's what the congregation did.
Second Congregational's co-moderator, George Peteros, made a "cold call" to the Rev. Larry DeLong, pastor of Miracle Temple on Bank Street, whose large and growing congregation needed a more suitable space for its ministry, according to a written account of the transaction.
DeLong said yes, and called the offer "a gift from God."
The church voted on May 19, 2013 - Pentecost Sunday - to transfer the property, with no idea of where it was going, but the next day McCaffrey received a call from the Rev. Anne Fuhrmeister, pastor at Crossroads Presbyterian, who had overheard a conversation in the post office about Second Congregational's decision.
Fuhrmeister offered "hospitality" to Second Congregational while members decided what to do next, and the offer was accepted.
A month later, 45 congregants of Second Congregational voted to leave the city and their legacy building and move to Waterford, giving Waterford its first Congregational church ever. Second Congregational held its final service in New London on July 14, 2013, and has been worshipping on Cross Road ever since.
Giving away the building and making the move was the right decision, McCaffrey said.
"The biggest thing it did is it made it possible for the church to start carrying out its mission again," he said. "Before, we had no money left over for benevolence or ministries. We were spending so much on utilities and maintenance - we were pouring all of that into the granite."
The move "has made it possible to recapture the church as a mission and not just a place to go on Sunday," he added.
And there is new fellowship between the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, who meet at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays for coffee between their separate services.
McCaffrey said Waterford Congregational is picking up new members, not losing them these days.
"We want people to know that we are here and that we see a future for this congregation and that God has a plan for us," he said.
Leaving New London and giving up the historic church was agonizing for members, McCaffrey said, but it was not a snub of New London.
"It was not so much fleeing the city as it was we could not afford to stay there," he said.
• When membership rolls at the city's old mainline churches shrunk to as low as a few dozen worshippers, the faithful decided to give up their longtime sanctuaries. Replacing them in some cases are more contemporary services that are drawing a diverse following.
• James Levesque, pastor of Engaging Heaven, and Joe Paskewich, pastor of Calvary Chapel, took non-traditional roads to the pulpit.
• For Beloved Grace Carter, who "just turned everything over to God" after a divorce four years ago left her "broken, hurt and shocked," Engaging Heaven was the spiritual home she had been looking for.
• By merging, the First Baptist Church and the First Hispanic Baptist Church set out to "be diverse racially, culturally, and economically, in age and gender and by languages we use in ministry."
• When congregants of the Second Congregational Church decided to give away their historic building, Miracle Temple members saw it as "a gift from God."
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