In West Enosburg, a lifelong parishioner tries to move on without his church
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of the West Enosburg United Methodist Church.
What do you do when a place that once held your community together no longer exists? Do you hold onto it, or do you let go? A man in the town of West Enosburg recently had to answer this question. His name is Warren Hull.
“When you come down the road going from west toward the east,” he said, gesturing, “then you're able to see the barn and the back part of the house, which you couldn't see before because the church hid it all. Couldn't see it.”
But for almost 200 years, there was a church here, at 1725 Tyler Branch Road in West Enosburg, Vermont. For all of Warren Hull’s life, there was a church here.
“It does look a lot different with the church gone,” he said. “It looks a lot bigger.”
The 75-year-old grew up in West Enosburg, on a dairy farm, which he recently sold to his son. Now Warren and his wife Mary live down the road, in a small white house with a three-car garage.
I visited on a recent Thursday morning to sit at the kitchen table and talk about what used to be the West Enosburg United Methodist Church.
“I was baptized at that church,” Warren said. “My parents went there. And my grandparents went there. And my great grandparents, I do believe went there some, too.”
The church was organized in 1825 by the Reverend Isaac Hall. At the time, it had 15 members.
The first church building was erected in 1839, the year the first commercial telegraph line began operating, the year the Boston Morning Post recorded the first use of the word “OK,” the year the first photograph was taken of the moon.
Made of wood and painted white, the church burned down twice in the 1800s, and was rebuilt both times. The church Warren Hull grew up attending was built in 1892.
Standing in the doorway, Warren says, you could see the altar, an organ, eight rows of pews, and six stained glass windows, each about seven feet tall.
When he was a kid and came with his parents, they’d sit about two-thirds of the way down on the right, which is where the heat came out from the wood furnace in the wintertime. Later, when he was an usher, he’d sit in the very back on the left, so he could get up to take collection, or ring the bell.
“Someone would ring the bell just — just before they started the service. It would echo, you could hear it, mile away. It was really quite a bell.”
Back when this church was built, Vermont’s population was half the size it is today, and the number of dairy farms, almost double.
Everyone knew everyone, at this small church in this small Franklin County farming town. Services were a weekly reunion, a public forum, a kind of glue.
“After church it was like, you know, catch up on the news type thing, where they would discuss what was going on the farm and farming topics. Stuff like that. And a lot of times after church, like maybe once a month, they'd have like a potluck or little picnic type thing where you’d eat together, gossip and then go home,” Warren recalled.
But things have changed. Warren says his family’s dairy farm is the only one left on Route 108 between Enosburgh and Bakersfield, where there used to be more than a dozen.
The bones of the church grew weary with use, and weather, and time. The congregation couldn’t have services there for the past five years.
And with each passing generation, the number of churchgoers dwindled. You could’ve counted them on your fingers.
“There’s so few that now we go into town with the Enosburgh group, merged with them. And it wouldn't be feasible to try to keep [our church] going because we would not have enough income, money given in to maintain it.”
It’s like this all over the state; Vermont’s population is aging, and less than 20% of residents regularly attend church, making it one of the least-religious states in the country.
“You know, common sense it — the only thing to do was to tear it down or take the chance that we might see it fall down,” Warren said. “And I honestly believe that with our church tore down and gone, people will be much happier than they will two, three years down the road driving by and seeing the church just, you know, just falling apart.”
"The only thing to do was to tear it down or take the chance that we might see it fall down."Warren Hull, chair of the board of trustees of the West Enosburg United Methodist Church
He said it wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right thing to do.
“Now we heard there's another church being tore down in the state of Vermont, too, in Danville or something?”
He was thinking of a former church in Bellows Falls, which is slated for demolition in December, after falling into a state of neglect.
But he could just as easily have been thinking of St. Teresa’s in Hyde Park, which was torn down last July. Or even places like St. Stephen in Winooski, St. Edward in Williamstown and North American Martyrs in Marshfield, which all closed in 2020.
And there may be others, which slipped away quietly, without making the news.
From their home on Route 108, Warren and Mary drove their truck to the church site. I followed.
“Yeah, so the church was... you're standing in it now. This was it,” Warren said.
The 129-year-old church in West Enosburg was knocked down in the morning on Oct. 28. It was taken down in the manner that a large tree might be felled with an axe: one side was removed to weaken the structure, and the remaining walls were pushed, to collapse, in a cloud of dust.
The lot was filled in, and sprinkled with hay, and all that stood there on this cloudy Thursday morning was a tall old man named Warren Hull.
“Going back to me remembering all the people that used to go to church as I grew up, and they've passed and gone. It's — now the church is gone, they're gone too. And I go to church in Enosburgh with that group, and you kind of make a new — a new group, but you still lost your, you know, your group. Makes the difference. Yeah, you notice a difference. That’s the way life goes, I guess.”