The future of the First Baptist Church of Vineyard Haven is caught in the middle between two opposing forces. Half the congregation wants to sell the building and build a new church somewhere else. Half wants to pursue a daunting task: Restoration of the 1885 building.
The First Baptist Church on Spring street, not far from the Katharine Cornell Theatre and town hall, is rich in heritage. The church was built in the immediate aftermath of the destructive downtown fire. Its members include generations of Vineyarders, and it boasts a beautiful-sounding Hook and Hastings pipe organ. But the building is in serious need of repair. Walls are shifting and there is complete disagreement among the church goers on how to proceed. Fortunately for both sides, the split in position hasn't hurt the congregation, but you could argue that it has hurt the church. As the debate goes on for years, the church continues to suffer.
Henry Burt, a former selectman and boatbuilder, is leading the group of parishioners interested in selling the building and finding a new church.
Barbara Lopes, daughter of the organist and a native of town, is leading the parishioners who want to save the building. Mrs. Lopes and Mr. Burt would gladly sit together in church and agree on their affection for the place, but they have two views about what to do.
"The congregation is divided," Mr. Burt acknowledged. Mr. Burt, 75, has been a member of the church since he was 14 years old. "I would like to put the property up on the market. I'd like to build another building with the proceeds and come out without a mortgage. The building is in extremely bad shape. We've had estimates that scare me, or would scare anyone with a right mind."
Mrs. Lopes said: "We call ourselves the group that wants to stay. I've been a member of the church since I was very young. I have childhood memories. The problems with the church have gotten worse in the last 15 years. The church is really deteriorating. We really need to do something. I think it is a prime spot for a church. People can walk up from town. It is such an old beautiful building. The architecture is really unique."
Money is at the center of the debate. The small congregation doesn't have anything close to what might be needed to restore the building, and that is where Mrs. Lopes's group is struggling. The church organization is autonomous and separate from any larger church hierarchy. There is no diocese that has deep pockets, thus the members of the church have to come up with its own financial solution.
Mr. Burt said while he has the most sound economic solution, he doesn't have political wherewithal to prevail. Mr. Burt said that in order to vote to sell the church, he'd need a two thirds majority.
"We've given ourselves until late spring to come up with ideas and thoughts. But it is an almost impossible situation. I don't know where I am going to find a piece of property that we can afford," Mr. Burt said.
Freeman Leonard, 93, has fond memories of the church and feels the building can be saved. "There is nothing really drastically wrong with the church that can't be fixed," said Mr. Leonard, who was once the town's building inspector. "I think the building is salvageable."
Connie Leonard, Freeman's wife, said her family goes back generations. "I can think when I would sit there and there were 16 members of my family there. We were one of the biggest families in church."
Mr. Burt said the church membership has dropped and they don't have the resources to solve the problems. He said moving to another site with parking might attract more members.
Several years ago the congregation hired an architect who proposed a $2.25 million renovation project that would include connecting the parish house with the church. Those numbers are what left Mr. Burt shaking his head.
Mrs. Lopes said this project doesn't have to be taken all in one bite. She said that there are probably steps that could be taken to secure the building and move forward. She said she has had a number of conversations with people in the community over what might be done.
Her mother, Kathryn B. Stewart, the organist and church historian, has a perspective, too: "We found out a lot of work has to be done," she said. "All the stained glass windows have to be removed and redone. There are construction pieces that are no longer level. On the roof there are two and three layers of shingles. A lot of people say it is not worth doing, they would rather move."
James Weisman, architect, was asked to take a walk through the building two months ago. "The building has a hip roof with huge valley rafters," he said. "The valley rafters don't come to the ground, they stop on top of the first floor. There is nothing restraining them from pushing out as well as pushing down, and that is deforming the structure. The basic solution is to make it so the lower portion of the valley rafters don't push out. You can do that with cables. That is not a big deal."
Mr. Weisman added: "That is a phenomenal building and it should be saved. You know until I walked through that building I had never been inside, though I had been a neighbor for 20 years. It is a remarkable space for religious purposes and musical events."
Mr. Weisman said he reviewed the architect's renovation and expansion plan and concluded that a good deal of its cost was put toward out-of-reach solutions. "The cost of stabilizing the building," he said, "would be significantly less than $2 million, much less."