Brookline voters to discuss ownership of church
BROOKLINE -- Since it was built in 1836, the Brookline Baptist Church's brick walls and slate roof have embodied much of the history of this small town in the West River Valley.
"My paternal grandmother and grandfather were members of the church," said David Allbee, a life-long resident of Brookline. But even though the tradition of the church was strong up through the beginning of the 20th century, by the 1930s, the town was no longer able to support a ministry there.
"My parents were married in 1937," said Allbee. "At that point the church didn't have a ministry, so they were married in Newfane."
Even though there were attempts to resurrect a ministry in the church, he said, none of them were successful.
"When I was grade-school student, we had a group of young people who were Mennonites. They began a Sunday Bible School in the church," said Allbee. That was in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, he said, at time during which elementary school students also used the school for Christmas pageants and the like.
"That was the extent of its use."
On Feb. 19, Doug Wellman, a member of the Brookline Historical Society, presented a report to the Selectboard that might help voters decide whether the town should take ownership of the church and the town's old elementary school, which now houses Sunny Lane Daycare and Preschool.
Wellman said there is a lot of interest in the town to maintain the building "and not let it go derelict and fall in."
"Now the voters get the chance to vote and put their money where their mouths are," said Wellman.
While the building needs roof work and rafter and window repair, nothing needs to be done right away, he said. But, said Wellman, the building needs about $100,000 invested in it to fix it up.
In 1945, the building was turned over to the Ladies Benevolent Group, which every year has organized fundraisers. Most notably, the group raffled off a quilt each year. Over the years, the quilt raffle has brought in between $1,200 to $2,200, said Sigrid Blazej, the treasurer of the Ladies Benevolent Group. The group also hosts a booth at the Newfane Heritage Festival each year and sponsors a Christmas bazaar at the church. Currently, the group has $30,000 in an account dedicated to the building's upkeep.
The group has offered the church to the town for $1, which would take control of the account if voters agree to purchase the building.
Patricia Ballou, who has been a resident of Brookline for the past 32 years, has been a member of the benevolent society for almost as long.
"I joined the group within a year of moving here," she said.
But membership in the Ladies Benevolent Group, which operates the Historic Brookline Church Preservation Initiative, has dwindled, from 28 to eight, said Ballou, and it's time for the town to either take over ownership or for the group to sell it.
"The building can always be sold, but that's not what I want to see. It's part of the history of this community."
Ballou said, like the Round Schoolhouse (which has its own incredible story related to Dr. John Wilson, aka Captain Thunderbolt), the church and the school building are the heart of Brookline, said Ballou.
Staats agreed with Ballou's sentiment.
"We don't really have a town center. The church and school constitute our center of town. Without that, we're just a town with a bunch of houses that you drive through."
Judy Acanpora, the former president of the preservation initiative, said the benevolent society recently received a release of the property from the American Baptist Churches of Vermont and New Hampshire.
"That clears the title," she said.
There was also a problem with property lines between the church and the school, but a recent survey and redrawing of the lines has resolved that issue, said Acanpora.
"But I want to strongly emphasize that the building and the property have really belonged to the town for many years," she said. "If the people of the town vote against keeping the church, it might be abandoned and that would be terrible. It would be a shame to lose the building."
The Brookline Town Plan, which was approved in 2013, specifically mentions the church as worthy of placement on the National Register of Historic Places. If the town takes ownership of the building, it might be able to apply for grants the Ladies Benevolent Society was ineligible to apply for, said Staats.
While some church buildings have been converted into meeting halls and entertainment venues, he said, there's a very real chance someone might buy it and deconstruct it for salvage.
"It's a great asset for the town and it would be shortsighted not to consider it for future generations," said Staats.
The committee Wellman headed isn't planning on making a recommendation to town voters.
"We'll present the information and let them decide," he said. "But my own personal feeling is we should try to keep it. As a taxpayer, I think we could keep both buildings without having a real increase in taxes."
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.
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