By Laura Power
East Barnard Church, photo by Laura Power
East Barnard lies in a bucolic dale, with no paved routes leading up over the hills that surround it; the economy of dirt roads is perhaps not the only reason that the taxpayers decline to lay down asphalt. Just nine miles distant, minivans, sport utility vehicles, and 18-wheeled tractor-trailers barrel along a four-lane, high speed interstate. Meanwhile, the occasional automobile honing in on East Barnard must pick its precarious way along rutted dirt lanes barely wide enough for even one car.
“It’s interesting how people find their way here, the sense of community is just remarkable,” says sixteen-year resident Karen Thorkilsen of the village with just a dozen and a half or so homes, “the newcomers and the people who have been here for a long time share a love of this geography, it’s isolated in a way that people like.” The residents also share an ardent commitment to a centuries old embodiment of the industry and perseverance of their forefathers, the village church. In East Barnard, an unpretentious white clapboard “meeting house” rests on a little knoll a few feet from Broad Brook; a stand of towering pines shields its north side, many of it erstwhile members lie buried in the cemetery just south.
Visitors willing to plow through the muck of this upcoming mud season to pay a call at the East Barnard Church may be startled by what they see. If all goes according to plan, the church’s 177-year-old steeple dome and its slightly younger 800-pound bell will be missing from their current perches atop the roof and may instead be lying on the church’s front lawn.
When the Broad Brook Union Society formed in 1833 to finance, build, and manage the church, design of the steeple was left unspecified. The Society’s formal instructions to its appointed five man building committee were simply, “build the house on the same plan of the one erected in the Snow neighborhood [North Pomfret] the last season with the exception of the desk which is to be at the other end of the House, also the steeple which is to be left under the direction of the building committee.”
The steeple they fashioned is not of the traditional spire and cross variety that tops many churches. “It’s very interesting,” says restoration professional Jan Lewandoski of Greensboro Bend, “there is a square tower and then above it is a very ornate octagonal belfry with louvers and protruding pilasters and a little metal dome on top with a weather vane.” Lewandoski hopes to begin a multi-stage renovation of the East Bernard steeple this spring with his firm, Restoration and Traditional Building. He’ll take the dome and parts of the upper belfry off with a crane and move them to the ground where they can be reworked. The four foot iron bell, which he figures is circa the 1860s, will be pulled out as well, so that the belfry’s interior framing can be restored. Then the steeple tower will be capped with a temporary roof, one that can be pushed around during other interior and exterior work.
“The objective is to duplicate the original structure,” says Lewandoski, who has been restoring churches, barns, bridges and other historic buildings in New England for over thirty years. Where he can, he’ll remove only parts of some of the rotting timbers inside the East Barnard belfry, and replace the pieces with new wooden lengths, “scarfing” them to existing timbers with specially cut, interlocking joints. Other beams may have to be entirely removed and replaced. When the framing work is complete, Lewandoski will install a new skirting roof on the tower below the belfry. In the meantime, he’ll have the weather vane reproduced, “the little mast that supports it appears to have been blown apart by lightning” he says, and the dome will be re-metaled, “you can see daylight through it now,” he adds. Because the dome’s complex curved surface splays out to a flat, octagonal shape, it requires a flexible but durable material. He hopes to use lead coated copper, which is safe, and its run-off won’t stain the church’s white exterior. Once work on the dome is complete, he’ll lift it back up and reattach it to the belfry.
This kind of restoration work requires analyzing and understanding the structure, “giving it credit and leaving it where it’s good, fixing it where it’s not,” says Lewandoski, “you also have to be good at using the same tools and doing the same work” as craftsmen at the time of original construction.
In a history written in the 1920s, the Reverend William Monroe Newton wrote that “Barnard is properly called a hill town,” a place that until the late 1770s was an untouched forest over run with beech, maple, birch, and hemlock trees. The town was chartered in 1761, but its first settlements didn’t take hold until some 14 or 15 years later. The village known as East Barnard, which may rightly be called an even hillier town, butts up against the far border, beside Pomfret and South Royalton, and near Sharon; its first settlers dug in in the mid 1780s.
The religious life of all the surrounding area back in those early days was tended by circuit preachers who travelled from town to town. While many denominations were represented, early into the nineteenth century, Methodism “spread like small pox before the vaccine,” wrote 1920s preacher Truman Allen, and in East Barnard in particular, “many young men were converted.” There were, apparently, great camp meetings lasting 3 or 4 days during summers in August, where tents fashioned from white cotton cloth stretched up to a quarter mile from the East Barnard village.
It may be that geography compelled formation of the Broad Brook Union Society; it was inconvenient for the families of East Barnard, South Royalton, North Pomfret, and southwest parts of Sharon to struggle up and down the hills every Sunday to their own, relatively distant, town centers. The Methodists, for example, had to travel several miles to a church many called crude. It was more like a barn, with no pews, and only rough seating from planks set on wood, or sap buckets turned upside down. In any case, Methodists and others near East Barnard came together to establish the Society; their mission from the outset was to build a non-denominational church. To raise funds, they solicited subscriptions early in 1834; by the following October, the building was completed. The Society auctioned off the church’s pews, the first to go brought in the highest price; it was won by Joseph Ellis, who paid $27.13. When the bidding was over, Methodists owned half the pews and the others were undeclared or spread among four smaller denominations. Sundays were meted out to each group in proportion to their pew ownership.
Few families are as connected to their church as the Leavitts. Their forefathers were among the early settlers of the East Barnard area, and one, Ichabod Davis, was the Broad Brook Union Society’s first moderator and a member of the committee that oversaw the church’s construction. He was also the auctioneer for the initial sale of pews; he himself bought numbers 4 and 29 for a combined total of $39.21. His descendants and other Leavitt ancestors have been members of the church ever since. Seven present era Leavitt siblings, John, Marjorie, Edwin, Elizabeth, Jeanne, Marion, and Levi Dudley (“Bud”) grew up on dairy farm a half mile up Allen Hill Road behind the church. “We were actually in Pomfret,” says John, “but we always called ourselves East Barnard.” Their childhood home was built in 1910; when they were youngsters in the 1930s and 40s, the house had no electricity, but it did have a bathroom, “one of three in the whole area,” John adds. Back in those days, the Leavitt kids got around on horse or leg power, except on snowy winter days when they could slide on their sleds from their house clear down to the East Barnard school.
The little white church was a fundamental part of their lives, too. That the church was so engrained in their weekly routine is reflected in their affectionate memories of it. Marion recalls picking flowers as she walked down the hill to services, Bud says he can still hear the ticking of the Sessions clock in the back of the church, “it was so slow,” he laughs. In the summer of 2009, as the 175th anniversary of the church approached, John jotted down some of his recollections.
The first minister he remembers was Mr. Moore. “He would raise his voice very loud and pound his fists on the podium,” John wrote. Of other preachers that followed, the most notable were “Father Nelson who was quite an actor, Lee Ann Betz who always brought her doll and set it on the front pew, Mr. Fairchild who was ninety years old.” One of John’s first jobs at the church was to stoke its then wood-fired boiler, a job that he inherited from his father. “I used to come down on cool mornings in early June and light it up just to take the chill off,” he says, “I would ring the bell to let people know it might be warm in there.”
In 1968, the Broad Brook Union Society was replaced by a non-profit Vermont corporation simply known as the East Barnard Church, but the amended organization retained the fundamental founding principle of the old Society, that the church be independent. One of the advantages of a community church, unaffiliated with any particular denomination, is that its members are more at liberty to imbue its environs or weekly service with personal expressions. One treasured and unusual representation of care and respect has hung behind the pulpit for more than two decades.
It’s a quilt, still snowy white despite its age. Its creator, Polly Leavitt, Bud’s wife, has been a quilter of reputation for many years. “The center of it is Sabra’s design,” Polly says, referring to renown woodblock printer Sabra Fields, whom she first describes as “an artist who lives across the street,” but then adds, “maybe the most famous in Vermont.” Polly particularly loved one of Fields’ prints, a long view of sister-in-law Marjorie’s fields, with a cluster of barns and buildings in the distance, and the mountains overlapping behind. Fields agreed to let Polly use the design, and lent her the original parchment paper sketch, which Polly used to create appliques. The two collaborated on the chain of pansies that encircle the center motif; Fields helped Polly simplify the shape of the flowers and choose colors. Originally, Polly made the quilt to raise funds for the church, but when she presented the finished product to the governing board, they didn’t want to auction it. “It’s a beautiful summer picture in East Barnard,” says Polly, “they decided that they would rather hang it up in the church.”
During one summer service five or six years ago, then East Barnard minister Jane Huber surprised her congregation. She invited anyone interested to come to a meeting to learn Gregorian chant. For about a dozen church members, that was the beginning of a transforming Wednesday evening ritual. Through call and response, where Huber would sing a phrase and ask her “students” to repeat it, she taught the group a compline, an ancient evening service of prayer and psalms, sung in latin. For many, “it’s a practice in intentional community,” says Huber. Because the chant is not conducted or accompanied, and has no rhythmic structure, “it helps people grow in awareness of each other, they must breathe together, they must move through the musical text together, they learn to rely on each other.”
The group continues to sing the compline, even though Huber is no longer able to serve as their summer pastor. And they’ve put their own mark on the service. “We sing the original service but we’ve interspersed some contemporary poetry,” says church clerk and chanter Karen Thorkilsen, “so we sing some of it in latin and then stop and read a poem.” The group even meets in private homes when the weather is frigid, but they of course prefer the sanctuary of their little white meeting house. “The church is a wonderful place to sing,” says Thorkilsen, “it feels like it’s singing with you.”
The East Barnard Church, like many tiny rural churches, must vigilantly attend to the financial challenges of maintaining a hundreds-year-old building on a small pocketbook. But its forty-some members have also found small but significant, ways to celebrate their church’s country charm, their shared history, and each other. The active Sunday season runs for thirteen weeks during the summer, but the “chanters” sing their Wednesday service in the church for as long before and after the “official” season as the temperatures are tolerable. There is an annual, well-attended Christmas Eve service with ice-bucket luminaria lighting the church’s pathways and cemetery, and a bonfire with hot cider after. The close-knit but welcoming congregants all love their church. Bud Leavitt boils it down. “It’s the fellowship and the feeling of God’s presence,” he says.
Sunday services at the East Barnard Church are at 9:30 a.m. from mid-June through Labor Day. The compline chanting service is held throughout the year. For time and location, or other information, contact Karen Thorkilsen at email@example.com or 802-763-2294.
By Laura Power