AMESBURY — There's new hope among the 34 members of Union Congregational Church that their picturesque, historic church on the banks of the Merrimack River might survive.
Instead of voting Sunday on whether to sell and get out from under the steep costs it will take to renovate the 175-year-old church building, parishioners instead met to discuss a plan put forth by the church's Point Shore neighbors to raise $200,000 to save their church.
Though most of the neighbors of the church don't worship there, it turns out that the quaint little chapel that's stood vigil over their neighborhood for the past 175 years means quite a lot to them. So much so that upon hearing of the plan to sell the church, they hit the pavement and implored their neighbors to give what they could to the cause of keeping the church intact.
The extended hand of help lifted the spirits of lifelong Union Congregational parishioner Betty Goodwin, who is thrilled to think that the church might be spared from the wrecking ball.
"We are so glad," said Goodwin. "They're going to try to raise $200,000 for us to repair it."
The church has struggled in recent years to keep up with the maintenance of the 1835 structure, and with only 34 parishioners to draw from, it's been forced in recent years to look for funding outside the church community to tackle the bigger projects that they face. This summer, the financial burdens and a new list of needed repairs forced the church council to think about selling the two church buildings.
Recent rains have permeated the belfry tower, leaving rotted wood that must be replaced. According to Goodwin, the church council is afraid the bell in the belfry is heavy enough that it might tumble down, given the instability of the structure. Also, the floor of the balcony is beginning to buckle, and there's mold beginning to grow in the basement due to flooding that occurs every spring.
"There's just so much work to be done," said Goodwin.
While neighbors had done a little bit to help the church in recent years, such as attending their church dinners and events, news that Union was planning to sell to a developer or private owner prompted some serious discussion among active residents who view the church as an integral part of their neighborhood landscape.
The most active among them included Morton Gilbert and Carol Finn, who went door-to-door to seek help and managed to collect a handful of pledges that they in turn delivered to Union Pastor Robert Ingalls. Some residents shared the sum of their committed gift, but others did not, leaving the total amount of promised dollars a mystery. But according to Ingalls, the pledged dollars that have come in since last Thursday totals $13,000.
"We did it in about two days," said Gilbert, who said he's committed to helping organize the capital campaign with the hopes of raising the required $200,000 in six months.
"That's what has been said is the amount necessary to do essential repairs," said Gilbert.
While Gilbert's not a member of the church, he lives nearby and through the years has known pastors connected to the church as well as a great many parishioners. For him and many other Point Shore neighbors, the idea of its being lost to development spurred him to action.
"I think those that have pledged so far have without exception not been members of the church," he said. "Our hearts are in the right spot with respect to trying to help out."
According to Gilbert, the campaign is in its earliest stages and is seeking only pledges of donations at this point in order to assess whether there is an appetite for saving the church that's sufficient to the amount of money needed to make repairs.
"We want people to pledge money," said Gilbert. "This doesn't mean donate money at this time. The way the pledge form is termed is that it would materialize only if the church postponed the vote, which they've done, and only if we reach the $200,000 goal. That's going to take time. People have questioned whether we can accomplish that in six months. We don't know that."
Gilbert and Finn, with help from Carol Glenn, will be working in the coming weeks on finalizing the details of how money will be raised, with the idea that some monies will be needed sooner rather than later.
"The church has ongoing expenses in the meantime," said Gilbert. "I would think that there would be folks that would like to simply write checks to Union Congregational Church in some amount to help them defray these normal day-to-day, week-to-week operating expenses," said Gilbert.
In the meantime, residents who heard of the church's plight showed up in much greater numbers to the church's flea market event Saturday, and Goodwin has been hearing from people around town who are interested in helping raise money for Amesbury landmark.
Those who would like to learn more about the effort to save the church can call Gilbert at 978-388-3831 or Carol Finn at 978-388-6591 or Carol Glenn at 978-388-0212.