BRATTLEBORO—In the “year without a summer,” 14 parishioners left their church in West Brattleboro for a small schoolhouse on what today is the Town Common.
Under a sky filled with volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora the previous year and amid freezing temperatures from the event’s climate disruption, the 12 women and two men would call their church the “Brattleborough East Society” in 1816.
Two decades later, the growing Calvinist congregation moved their church piece by piece to “the Orchard” on present-day Main Street. In 1915, the society dedicated the renamed Centre Church.
Church members launched a year-long celebration of its 200th anniversary on Jan. 10, with a luncheon honoring historian and parish member Dorothy Vander Meulen.
Vander Meulen’s recently published book, This Jewel on Main Street: Centre Congregational Church at 200 years, 1816 to 2016, details the church’s history.
The book took three years to write, said Vander Meulen, who culled most of the information from the church’s archives and interviews with members.
“Our story is a long and rich one, full of saints, sinners, martyrs, and ordinary people who struggled with their faith and their relationship with their God,” Vander Meulen writes in Jewel. “It starts in England in the late 16th century when Englishmen saw that their Established Church had changed a number of times, depending on the whims and beliefs of their monarch.”
From conservative to liberal
For 200 years, the congregation has opened its doors to the community for events sacred and secular.
While honoring their founders, the Centre Congregational Church and its members also changed in step with its community.
According to members, the church — which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ — has evolved with its UCC denomination into a “broadly orthodox faith,” with a focus on freedom, equality, and justice.
The church’s early congregation, however, was mostly conservative and Calvinist with historical roots tracing back to the Puritans and Pilgrims, according to information in Jewel. According to Vander Meulen’s chronicle, in 1832, the congregation was decidedly pro-temperance.
After 200 years, would the church’s forebears recognize the present congregation?
“They’d think, ‘We’ve probably gone to hell,’” said Vander Meulen with a smile.
Bicentennial Committee Co-chair Judy Palmer laughs heartily, referring to “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a sermon by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).
Those strict Calvinists? “I think they’d be horrified,” said Margo Neale.
The church today leans politically liberal, Vander Meulen said — a big change from the 1960s, she said, when most of the congregation still identified as moderate Republicans.
The congregation had asked Rev. Milton Stacey Czatt to resign in 1943 because of his pacifist views and questioning the internment of Japanese Americans, she said.
And her husband, Rev. Allen Vander Meulen Jr., took heat in 1966 over a discussion he participated in — as a private individual at a rally — on the Vietnam War.
No one actually heard what he said at the rally, Vander Meulen said. The two sides instead busied themselves by shouting at each other.
They were all also busy “assuming what he said,” she added in her husband’s defense.
“These [society] politics exist within a church, too,” Palmer said.
Women’s roles in the church
While no women held leadership roles in the church until much later, even in its early years the congregation unanimously sanctioned women voting on church matters.
In the 1960s, women still held no leadership roles, yet remained active — mostly, Vander Meulen added, because few women held jobs outside the home.
When Vander Meulen arrived at Centre Congregational Church, the older female parishioners informed her she was an automatic member of the Women’s Fellowship group.
The group folded in the 1990s, however, because most of the women had entered the workforce, Vander Meulen said.
The church has had many female interim pastors starting in 1993, according to Jewel. Rev. Carra McFadden became the first settled female pastor in 2009 and served until 2014.
Social justice in the community
The congregation seeks to work for social justice in its own community, Vander Meulen adds. Its members don’t view the challenges as only occurring “out there.”
Centre Church became an Open and Affirming Church in 2013 officially welcoming members of the LGBTQ community. Members also advocate for peace through the church’s Just Peace program.
Vander Meulen chose That Jewel on Main Street as the title of her book to reflect what she saw as the church’s integral role in the life of Brattleboro.
The church provides a resource for the wider community and hopefully the community cherishes it, Vander Meulen said.
Centre Congregational Church hosts multiple programs and events. Neale said that on any given day, 80 percent of the people in the building are general community members.
“In that sense, we’re serving the broader community lavishly,” Neale said.
The church hosts Loaves and Fishes in collaboration with St. Michael’s Episcopal Church to provide meals two days a week.
According to Neale, the churches provide approximately 500 meals a week, with 130 people attending the Tuesday and Friday lunches. The kitchen also gives meals to others in need and to children in the Centre for Children program.
The Centre for Children is a self-funded organization within the church that serves between 37 and 42 children, said Neale. Approximately 80 percent of the children qualify for the state’s free and reduced-cost lunch program.
The congregation also works with a sister parish in El Salvador, El Cristo Redentor. According to Neale, the congregation supports El Cristo Redentor financially and has also sent a health support team and volunteer work crews.
Members budget $4,000 a year for a Social Service Supports program that supports 20 local community organizations, said Neale.
Neale added that the church also serves as a venue for events like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Carry Me Home (an organization gathering clothing for Syrian refugees), the Brattleboro’s Women’s Chorus, the community Messiah sing, and Brattleboro Music Center concerts.
Palmer added that the church plays “a useful role in the community.”
Idealistically, it’s a force for good, she said.
Dwinding, aging congregation
Vander Meulen added that when her husband served as minister in the 1960s, the congregation boasted 660 members. As of 2014, the congregation consisted of 73 “pledging units” or households.
Neale noted that the dwindling and aging face of the congregation is not singular to Centre Congregational Church.
But after 200 years, the congregation has no intention of allowing the church to “evaporate,” she continued. “We’re here. As far as we’re concerned, we could be here another 200 years.”
“For me, it was very easy,” said Vander Meulen of joining the church, where her husband Allen served as minister for five years.
The couple left the area when Allen entered academia. They later retired to Brattleboro.
Palmer joined the congregation in 1982. She wanted to find a Sunday School for her two children and felt a sense of community from the congregation. The members later supported her through the death of her husband.
The church lends itself to welcoming people on “a spiritual search” and of a questioning spirit, Palmer said.
With only 12 years as a member, Neale calls herself “the newbie.”
Formerly of New York City, Neale said she belonged to progressive, “theologically liberal” churches.
This church allows partitioners to search and reflect on theological questions, she said. People aren’t expected to simply accept dogma.
“This church is my other family,” Vander Meulen said when asked what she treasures about the church.
“Today’s world is so secular,” she said. She appreciates what she views as the church’s present message: even if people don’t believe in a specific God, the church represents a better way of living and cherishing others.
The message, she thinks, provides the wisdom of loving and being loved. “It gives you time to sort of refuel,” she said.
To Vander Meulen’s comments, Palmer added that Centre Congregational Church allows her to “recognize the holiness of life and to come and sit in a sanctuary.”
The 200th anniversary celebration is about more than reviewing a long history, said Neale. It’s also about the congregation’s hopes for the future.
“May the church always stay connected and supportive to the community and be what the community needs,” Neale said.