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After The Fire: A Small Vermont Congregation Is Enfolded Into Nearby Churches For Worship

A white wooden church with a steeple in the wintertime.
UMC-Middlesex Facebook page, Courtesy
The United Methodist Church in Middlesex was built in 1906. It was destroyed by a fire in late February.

Last month, a Middlesex landmark, built in 1906, was destroyed by fire. Early this week, fire investigators determined an electrical fire in the church’s basement furnace room caused the fire. 

Though the United Methodist Church was not being regularly used for church services during the winter months and COVID-19, its loss is still deeply felt in the community.

Reverend Jill Colley Robinson is the Green Mountain district superintendent of the New England United Methodist Church. Colley Robinson spoke with VPR's Mary Engisch about where the small congregation will worship now that the building is gone. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Where will the congregants go?

Rev. Colley Robinson: 'The heart of the town,' it's been called, because it is the place where people celebrate milestones in their lives. It's a place where weddings take place, it's a place where funerals and memorials take place... This is a terrible loss for the congregation of about 15 active members and of course, for the whole community.

Very grateful to area United Methodist churches that have immediately embraced this small congregation and welcomed them to be a part of those worshipping communities. Those are in Moretown, just down the road, in Waterbury, Waterbury Center and Montpelier. And so as soon as this happened, the over 100 United Methodist churches that are in Vermont immediately responded by reaching out with offerings of support.

This congregation has been through a lot in the last year. They lost their beloved pastor on March 4, 2020. After you hear that date, you'll know they were not able to celebrate or have a memorial service for him, it it had to be canceled due to COVID-19. 

Since then, they have been a lay-led congregation for the last year. They are an older congregation, they also were just planning, when the fire happened, to begin to open up some rooms that they had been working on that other people, that other groups could come in and use.  They also still had a very vital ministry of the food shelf out of the first floor.

More from VPR: 'An Emptying Of That Community': Observing Ramadan During A Pandemic

What did worship and other work through the church look like in the past year during COVID-19?

The COVID-19 worship time period has been an incredible challenge for churches across the state. But has also been a time of great discovery, because many, many churches, in the spirit of care for self and neighbor, have decided to not meet in-person.

We've had to find other ways to gather and worship and to be about our ministry. And those ways are through technology, and in places where technology is not accessible, or for individuals who don’t have access to it, we have found ways to stay connected just through the phone.

And quite a few of the churches have been able to actually grow, because they have people becoming part of the community from all over the state, all over the country and all over the world.

What have you advised the United Methodist churches around mask-wearing and distancing during the past year?

Just like the whole population of the state, there are a lot of differing opinions on what are best practices. So we have advised the churches we should all be complying with CDC recommendations and guidelines, Vermont Department of Health guidelines. And then the church itself has set out guidelines and best practices that are specific to a church’s ministry and the life of a church, that are specific to what it is to be in a faith community.

Many of the United Methodist churches in Vermont have continued and even expanded upon their ministries within their communities when it comes to providing food services, when it comes to keeping thrift shops open...Those needs, they have been increasing during COVID-19.

"...if we are not quite ready to be together in-person on Easter, we will be someday. The meaning of the day still holds true: It's about transformation, it's about new life, and what better message could we embrace at such a time as this when so much life has been lost and so many people have struggled." — Rev. Jill Colley Robinson

What will Easter holiday look like this year?

That is something that everyone is wondering about ...What I am reminding churches of is that Easter is one day, but Eastertide is a whole season. And so, if we are not quite ready to be together in-person on Easter, we will be someday. The meaning of the day still holds true: It’s about transformation, it’s about new life, and what better message could we embrace at such a time as this when so much life has been lost and so many people have struggled.

So, Easter will still come.

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Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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