BELLOWS FALLS — The Parable of the Sower, an 1880s stained glass window that has overseen life at the corner of Atkinson and School streets for more than 140 years, escaped demolition this week to live for another century, this time in the Bellows Falls train station.
Members of the Twelve Tribes religious community of the Basin Farm in Westminster, and their construction company, Commonwealth Construction, completed the delicate task of removing the window Thursday morning from the old Methodist church, only weeks before the building, most recently the Meeting Waters YMCA building, is slated for demolition.
The Twelve Tribes crew donated its labor to the effort spearheaded by the nonprofit group Destination Bellows Falls, according to Gary Fox, a director of Destination Bellows Falls, who in his day job is Rockingham’s development director.
The construction crew, operating two large mechanical lifts and armed with several buzzing Sawzalls, cut the colorful arched window from its wooden framework. Then, in an ingenious dance of extracting the damaged window from the second story and delicately balancing it on top of a large forklift, with two men in the second lift holding on to steady it, it was safely brought to the ground. Its removal left a gaping hole in the front of the church, which already had several other gaping holes.
“If anybody was able to do this, it’s them,” said Fox, as he watched the Twelve Tribes crew of about eight men make the final cuts and preparation.
The crew had spent several hours the day before preparing, but had to delay moving the window because the bigger forklift didn’t arrive from the Milton rental agency. They had removed the trim surrounding the window, and trimmed back Sheetrock in the vestibule ceiling, where the window had been located. The other stained glass windows had long ago been sold off.
Others at the scene on Thursday criticized the lack of apparent safety measures of the Twelve Tribes members as they worked to remove the window, including Gaetano Putignano, former chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, who watched the scene Thursday morning.
Putignano questioned why the road wasn’t closed, and the lack of hard hats, and other safety measures.
The two Twelve Tribes workers in the only elevated lift were wearing safety harnesses, but no hard hats.
Putignano called Fox to complain, and Fox showed up at the scene with hardhats and a safety vest for the Twelve Tribes worker who was directing traffic around the second lift, which was partially in the road.
After it was removed, the Sower was stowed in Commonwealth’s waiting box truck, and trucked a quarter mile to its new home in the train station, where it will be on permanent display. Fox said the train station was chosen in part because of its high ceilings, to accommodate the 14-foot tall Sower.
Fox said Plexiglas is needed to protect people from the lead paint on the window, as well as the fragility of the colorful glass. He said the window is in very good shape, except for the places where glass is already missing.
The town had originally planned on paying for removing the window, with hopes of having it restored and sold, in part to pay for the building’s demolition. In addition, a plan to save the top of the steeple was studied, approved and then abandoned because of the cost of remediating all the years of bird and bat guano.
The town has owned the derelict 1830s building since August, when it came into its possession through delinquent taxes by the owner Christopher Glennon.
Glennon, a former antiques dealer who bought the dilapidated building for $1 from the YMCA in 2017, hoped to turn it into a community arts center. That effort never got off the ground, and the building continued to deteriorate, to the constant worry of town and village officials. The building is surrounded by fencing and concrete barriers because of its proximity to Central Elementary School.
The town’s plan to remove and restore the Sower collapsed after research by the town’s historic preservation coordinator showed the window, long-rumored to be a Tiffany window, or more recently the product of the famed Lamb glass studios of New York City, was found to be a rather pedestrian window — not worth the money to save it.
But that’s when a group of Bellows Falls residents got going last week to save the window. The effort was spearheaded by Ray Massucco, Alisa Miller, Fox and Destination Bellows Falls; they were aided by Rockingham Select Board member Elijah Zimmer and Rockingham historic preservation coordinator Walter Wallace.
No Rockingham tax dollars were used in the effort, and a GoFundMe page has raised close to $4,000 to help with the restoration of the window.
Saving the window, with its striking colors and rich, detailed illustrations of the Biblical parable of the farmer sowing his seeds on both barren and fertile ground, struck a chord in many people, who viewed the loss of the historic old church building and its last glimpse of colorful beauty, as a defeat of the ongoing Bellows Falls effort to preserve its history.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Parable of the Sower is about the spiritual side of farming, and the window contains the key elements described in the scripture:
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Many people on social media compared the loss of the old church, which had for more than 40 years been home to the Meeting Waters YMCA, to other poignant losses of historic landmarks: the original Arch Bridge and Robertson Paper Mill, among others.
Wallace has been busy documenting the old Methodist meeting house, which in a twist of irony is not in the village’s historic district despite being the second oldest house of worship in the town. He said earlier in the week that the building, which was also home to the Fall Mountain Grange, would be well documented by the time it came down.
Fox stressed that the effort was not being paid for by the town, but by the nonprofit Destination Bellows Falls, and the GoFundMe web page was organized by Alisa Miller, an employee of Destination Bellows Falls. Destination Bellows Falls rents the train station from the Green Mountain Railroad, and Fox said the stained glass window could help boost restoration efforts of the station, as well as its own.
Fundraising efforts reached $3,900 Friday afternoon, with a target of $6,000. Fox said the project had several benefactors who were willing to step in if fundraising fell short.
The window is already secured in place in the waiting room of the station, Fox said. The window has joined the rows of church-pew-like benches that were originally from South Station in Boston.
The long-term plan is to cover the window with Plexiglas, in preparation for a full restoration, Fox said.
Demolition is slated to be held sometime after Dec. 1.