Church ownership transferred to nonprofit

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SAXTONS RIVER — With membership in the congregation dwindling from year to year, there was serious concern that Christ's Church on Main Street in Saxtons River might have to lock its doors. This would have been a tragic loss to the community, which has used the building for a number of activities, but most especially for the parents who have been sending their youngsters to the Village Early Learning Center for the past 30 years.

"This building has been in use since 1842," said Wanda Salter, the treasurer of the newly formed 24 Main Street, Limited, which now owns the historic building.

"The building is no longer owned by Christ's Church," said Donna Anderson, the former treasurer for the church. "I am turning it over to her, so my job will get easier."

For nearly five years, said Salter, the council of the church, of which she and Anderson are members, has been trying to figure out a way that the church could remain open. The council decided it was time to turn over control to a new nonprofit entity, thus the formation of 24 Main Street, whose board members include Salter, Sarah Noble, Tom Bowen, Dave Moore and Roger Dolloph.

"For the past five years we've been working towards a solution to keep this building open, viable and available to the community," said Anderson. "It took time, a lot of discussion, a lot of ideas, a lot of trying this out or trying that out."

With the formation of 24 Main Street, she said, "Everybody wins."

The congregation signed an agreement that lets the church members continue to use the sanctuary for at least the next 25 years and the community will continue to have access to the iconic building, she said. "We didn't want to see another building closed and shuttered."

Christ's Church is a Federated Church of the United Church of Christ and a First Baptist Church.

"Membership in the church has dwindled over time and the average age has increased dramatically," said Salter. "I'm 58 and I'm the youngest."

"The oldest member is in the 90s and not too many of us are capable of managing a building like this anymore," said Anderson.

"One of the things that spurred this, because membership has decreased, the amount of the annual pledges has gone down a lot. The church was having to dip into the endowment for repairs," said Salter.

Most recently, the church spent $40,000 to repair the building's steeple and another $22,000 to upgrade the building's wastewater system.

"The steeple is in great shape," said Anderson. "It won't fall down on Main Street."

A portion of the church's $300,000 endowment has also been turned over to the new nonprofit.

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"It was hard to think about," said Salter. "There's a responsibility for the church council in thinking about the endowment and using it responsibly ... how to make it go for the kinds of things the people who originally bequeathed the funds were thinking about. "We had to think about how did they want it used. We really want 24 Main Street's purpose to as closely align as possible to the purpose and mission of the church."

Village Early Learning Center, which occupies the ground floor of the building, is an official pre-k provider for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, which means the state covers up to 10 hours of the weekly $225 tuition.

"The daycare, which is full, is very important," said Anderson. "If you know anything about daycare, it's vital, and this is a beautiful facility for a daycare. "This year we have 22 students from 2 to pre-k and eight staff members."

Village Early Learning Center does not pay rent, said Anderson, but does contribute, when it can, to utility bills and other costs.

In addition to the daycare, the building is used for community dinners, a summer lunch program, the local nature club, Alcoholics Anonymous and a monthly food distribution. It's also been used for community meetings and events as well as weddings and funerals. Each fall, the Christ's Church Women's Fellowship hosts an annual bazaar.

Salter said the building is not exclusively for folks in Saxtons River and Rockingham.

"If someone from outside of the community wants to hold an event here, we would certainly consider it," she said.

Salter said she doesn't know of any other churches in the region that have successfully transferred ownership to a nonprofit that still allows worship in the building.

"People have repurposed churches," she said. "It might become a theater or a community building, but having the ability to still function as a church is unique. We are very fortunate we are able to do so."

Nevertheless, said Salter, "This was a very difficult process for people who have been part of this worship community, some of them for all their lives.

"This place means so much to everyone. It also means a lot to community members who may never have actually set foot in the church."

The 24 Main Street organization has received non-profit status from the federal government and is currently working on gaining a property tax exemption from the town.

The board of 24 Main Street, Limited, is made up of three church members and two members from the community.

"Being a church member is not a requirement going forward," said Salter. "It's a community board open to anyone. The purpose is to maintain this building so it can be used by the community for as long as possible."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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