The new Immanuel Retreat Center at 14 Church St., in Bellows Falls. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
The new Immanuel Retreat Center at 14 Church St., in Bellows Falls. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Saturday May 18, 2013

BELLOWS FALLS -- The Immanuel Episcopal Church plans to undertake a new ministry of hospitality, adult education and spiritual formation by launching a retreat center to host weekend workshops in spirituality, ministry and the arts.

What has served as the church's rectory since the 1800s will be transformed into the Immanuel Retreat Center, which will be rented for overnight accommodations, catering and daytime conference and performance space available. It also offers space to individuals for personal retreats.

The decision was made because the volunteer minister -- the Rev. Steve Fuller -- owns a house of his own in Bellows Falls and the rectory is not being used. Fuller told the Reformer a retreat center is a great re-purposing of the building, and there is a great need for it.

"There are some exciting changes. Even though we're a small congregation, our outreach is really big," he said. "We're trying to use it to help the community, not just Immanuel."

Director Robert Bowler said the church's senior warden Gloria Mansfield called him in August to asked about starting a center for Christian retreats and other purposes. Bowler said he got involved with some grant writing and the process took off from there.

"It will have a wider reach because it's a residential center," he said. "People from New York and Boston can come if they choose to."

A new handicapped-accessible bathroom has been added on the first floor, a new shower has been installed in an existing bathroom on the second floor and, in a third bathroom, there is a new shower. The congregation also set up a monitored fire alarm system, which will soon be coupled with a fire-suppressant sprinkler system.

The new retreat center will expand the ministry of the congregation, which has been worshiping as a parish. According to the church, William Atkinson, of the Bellows Falls Canal Company, donated land above the village of Bellows Falls for the Protestant Episcopal Association of Rockingham in 1817. A wooden church was built on the new site the same year. The rectory was built 30 years later next door to the wooden church for the sum of $1,000. Richard M. Upjohn, one of America's best-known Gothic revival architects, designed the present stone church, with its fish-scale roof and pinnacle bell tower.

The house, which has Victorian molding and transoms above the interior bedroom doors, sleeps 11 people in five bedrooms. One bedroom is handicapped-accessible on the first floor. It will also house a chapel and modest library focused on Western spirituality.

The chapel/conference room in the main church building will also get a new coat of paint, new conference chairs, and an air-conditioning system to keep it a pleasant space to meet in the hot summer months.

All this work is expected to be completed by the end of the month. Space will be rented to non-profit and corporate groups starting in June and there will be weekend workshops in spirituality during the summer.

The Immanuel Retreat Center will be formally dedicated by the Bishop of Vermont, Rt. Rev. Thomas Ely, on Sunday, June 2, at 5 p.m.

In spirituality, the following workshops will be offered: "The Labyrinth: A Hands on Workshop on this Ancient Spiritual Practice," (June 21-23), "Spiritual Journey with Meister Eckhart," (Aug. 23-25), "When Dance Becomes Prayer," (Sept. 6-8), "Soul Stories: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography," (Oct. 4-6) and "A Spiritual Journey with St. Francis of Assisi," (Nov. 15-17). There are more in the works for this year, as well.

In the arts, the following workshops will be offered in partnership with Stone Church Arts, our music program: "Eugene Friesen's Vermont Improvisation Intensive," (July 11-14), "Festival of Mandolin Chamber Music," (July 26-28), "Your Rhythm, Your Life," Aug. 15-18), and "Music and Poetry of the Celtic Lands," (Nov. 1-3).

Each of these weekends will have public concerts associated with them, as Immanuel Episcopal Church is in its 10th year of presenting concerts.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.