Putney Federated Church/United Church of Putney

on Jul 27th 2008

In 1919 a ‘union of good faith and economy’ created the Putney Federated Church, now the United Church of Putney, bringing the Methodists (established in Putney in 1832) and the Baptists (dating to 1787) together with and in the Congregational Church, which had been established in Putney in 1772. The groups maintained denominational ties and kept separate membership lists, but formed a Women’s Association, joining women from the different denominations.

The church building dates from 1841, on land sold to the Congregational Church Corp. by John Black, owner of the Putney Tavern, on March 10, 1841, with an additional 1/8 acre purchased from Stearns A. Houghton on March 24 (PLRv.8p.496; v.9p.194). The original parcel was split in 1867, at the same time the original large gallery in the back was turned into classroom space. The church was renovated further in 1893, when the bowed pews with their central aisle were added, along with the first organ. In 1915 the electric lights and the pressed tin ceiling came in, and then in 1938, the sanctuary was remodeled, and the stained glass removed; Sen. William H. Darrow, Mrs. George Aiken, and Lawrence Temple were on the building committee, and the architect was Ray Austin. Frank Smead and his sons painted the building, and the green pew cushions were made blue by “ladies of the church under the direction of Mrs. Laura Britton.” Soon thereafter the freshened hall was ringing with Alleluia at the Easter service, with the choir and soloist Grace Richardson under the direction of Ella Robertson. Reformer article Sun. 4/9/39. The church-owned land was split again in 1951 between R. & E. Blood and W. & M. Aiken; some was sold to the Highway Dept. in 1959, and the parsonage in Christian Square was sold in 1983. A bit more went to the town in 1989. In 1991 a Sesquicentennial restoration involved drainage of the system around the building, repair of the sills, steeple, and roof, replacement and addition of floor joists, and more.

From the beginning, the pastors of the church ranged in personality and denomination. John W. Crippen, a Baptist, brought the Hannums and the Gassetts [and presumably the Aikens] over from Christian Square in 1919 (history of Putney Baptists, Jonathan Prentiss, Nov 1987); he yielded to Charles H. Moorhouse, another Baptist, who lasted from 1919 to 1924. Frank E. Talbee, Methodist, came from 1924 to 1929, and Levinus K. Painter, Friend, arrived in 1929, leaving in 1936. Kenneth T. Widney, Methodist then Congregational, had a brief tenure until Alan T. Jones, a Congregational minister, arrived in 1936, leaving in 1944. L.H.T. Fairbanks, a Baptist, came from 1944 to 1948, and secured an electronic organ; David Jordan, Congregational, lasted from 1948 to 1950. Edward J. Tyler was chosen in 1950; he was instrumental in the filming of the Putney Bicentennial, in the collection of the historical society, and was involved in the staging of plays including Our Town (S. Mulcahy). Bulletins from April 1952 show the Fortnightly Club holding a Silver Tea in the church parlor, discussing Vermont covered bridges, and no doubt preparing to write the History of Putney: 1753-1953. That year Mrs. Frank Southard presided over the Women’s Club, and along with many listed in the ensuing paragraph, members’ names included Goodell, Hendricks, Wood, Pierce, Mellen, Miller, Cox, and Hinton.

Church bulletins from Tyler’s tenure show that junior and adult Sunday School were held, along with junior and senior choir rehearsal. As needs must, an every member canvass was led by an executive committee including William H. Darrow, Sr., John B. Adams, George Hamilton, David B. Hannum, Malcolm S. Jones, Jennie Pierce, Sylvia Derry, Ada Prentiss, and Edith West. The building and grounds committee boasted Beatrice Aiken, George Heller, Leoran Ingalls, and Fred Woll. Stockwells and Amidons, Wilsons and Farringtons, Scotts and Braleys are scattered through the committees, and the clerk was Margaret Howe.

Tyler became Congregational minister to students of the University of Vermont on Nov. 1, 1955, after which Jordan D. Cole, with Congregational ordination and federated affiliation, held the ministry to 1961. A typical Sunday in July 1959 found worship at 10am, with preschool at Roy Stromberg’s home, and primary at the Grange Hall across the street in what is now the Putney Clay School (church records, in possession of clerk). The 40th anniversary of the church was a grand occasion, with former pastor Levinus Painter of Collins, NY, who had spent a good deal of time in Kenya since leaving Putney, preaching. A copy of his sermon is on file, sent to the historical society by Painter himself in 1975, and the summary in a church newsletter says the main points included “release of power from God when persons are together; the need for freedom for each person to do his own thinking as in congregational-type churches even though queer persons are produced; and the greatest problem today for the Christian church: people inside the church in America [including] the need to make persons uncomfortable and the power of groups where laymen are most active.” The service also included remarks from Rev. Homer C Bryant, Executive Secretary of the Baptist Convention since 1936, and a service of song led by former pastor L.H.T. Fairbanks of Fair-Westport, NY. Fairbanks humorously recalled a puff of smoke emitted from the furnace during a sermon on forces of evil, and his goats in the basement of the parsonage one cold winter. Kenneth Widney, pastor in 1936, also attended and remembered being given a handstitched quilt with a picture of the church, and the signatures of the quilters.

George Hamilton was chairman of the Board of Deacons and Deaconesses in 1959: The Women’s Association president was now Mrs. Beulah Dean Smith, with Beatrice Aiken having resigned after three years on Sept. 2, 1957, with a declaration that the association needed to do more than raise money and send gift packages to schools and hospitals, specifically to engage in “real sacrificial acts of kindness toward our fellow-beings across the tracks” (letter on file). Ranneys and Coles were on committees this year, and the choir director was Terry Hubbard. The Youth Fellowship was meeting Sundays at 7 p.m. Helen Hannum and Raymond J O’Donnell were married on June 27; that year, Floyd Fellows was hospitalized in Hanover, Maude Fletcher was in the Texas Nursing Home in Bellows Falls, and David Aplin was in the Rockingham Hospital.. Also that year the Wallace family became members of the Federated Church, including School for International Training co-founder John, Betty Jean, and their daughter Barbara (from newsletters).

Attendance in 1958-59 averaged about 54 parishoners per service, from April-July. Greater attendance occurred in July—an average of 70 in 1958, 60 in 1959. Attendance at Church School averaged 33.7 between March and July, with a high of 53 one Sunday in October and a low of 22 on July 12. The 1959 budget overall was $4527.50; the church received $4778.91, and actually spent $4420.35: Cole was paid $2285.68 altogether, including his retirement fund payments. The building operation and maintenance costs were $1304.36, and the church program cost $565.59 (from 1959 annual report).

In 1960 the Old Home Day Program (from church files) featured William H. Darrow, Jr, as emcee, and singing by girls’ chorus. There were letters of greeting from Painter, Widney, Jones, Fairbanks, and Mitchell, as well as from absent parishoners; together the group read the 23rd Psalm, and listened to songs by Martha Miller, and the adult choir. Donald Watt, founder of the Experiment in International Living, was a speaker.
Then in 1961, William H. Schmidt became pastor, until he resigned in 1965 to found the Windham Regional Commission; until recently, he held the position of director of the Southeast/Mountain Valley region of the Vermont Land Trust. The existing pipe organ (93 years old at the time), was given by M/M Alan Laufman, and dedicated in 1961 “to be used or returned to donors.” Also in the church’s white “gift book,” recording gifts (but not donors) to the church since 1960, it is noted that the carpeting in the sanctuary dates from January 1963.

Willard Murray Reger became pastor on Nov. 27, 1966 (service folder for ordination of William Murray Reger 11/27/66) and the following Febuary a monthly newsletter called Steps (copies on file, addressed to Mrs. Everett Harlow) was created to publicize and follow the mission of church, with the goals to welcome information related to what “we are doing..and will be doing as a church…and creative expressions concerning the mission of our church and the church in the world.” The goals of the Church at the time, discussed in the Executive Committee in April 1967 (from church records), showed practicality and outreach: to see that the church makes Sunday Service available, and the church is maintained; to provide an information center; to provide information on Christianity with emphasis on everyday life; to communicate to the people of Putney what the Church is about, and to make it a reality to them, so they can make a choice; to build a spirit of mission and unity—then lastly, a compound goal showing the difficult walk of a Federated minister—to “provide a professional pastoral ministry to the people of Putney. Immediate goal to eliminate unnecessary structures which bind the pastor, such as token alliance with three denominations, excessive meetings to maintain a monolithic structure, antiquated constitution. Immediate goal to add to church staff, possibly a secretary or…a minister to youth, another pastor, etc.” Reger, who had typed out the goals, resigned in October 1967.

A list of late `60s ushers included many familiar names: John Adams, Mr White, Harry Morse, Austin, George, Norman, & Everett Gassett (the filed list apparently belonged to one of them), Howard Aplin, Erwin Bryant, Robert Prentiss, David Hannum Sr. & Jr., George Clark, George Hamilton, George Braley, Lawrence Temple, Robert & Joseph Burns, Luther Howard, Donald Robertson, Nicholas Miller, William Darrow; and on Mother’s Day, Mrs. George Aiken (named Vt. 1st mother), Mrs. Arthur Holway, Mrs. David Hannum, and Mrs. Donald Aplin. This was a busy time at the church, with many activities—besides the Children’s Sing and Sunday School, there were caroling and the family supper in December 1966, and soon thereafter the Youth Group Players staged “The Wreath.” In June of 1967 there was Vacation Church School, with preschool, kindergarten, primary, lower junior (grade 3+4), and junior groups. The 3rd annual mother/ daughter dinner was held in 1967, with Jack Wallace discussing Experiment student exchanges, and helping to bring a priest (Amadeo Albequerque) from Nicaragua to Putney as a visiting pastor (Steps, on file).

The annual report of 1968 (from collection of S. Mulcahy) includes a list of the church staff, with the notable additions of George and Elizabeth Carow, Jerome and Sue Mulcahy, Mabel Gray, and Elizabeth Sprague. Along with the budget, the various reports include the annual meeting, the Board of Deacons and Deaconesses, the women’s Bible class, and committees including Literature, Executive, Mission, Music, Christian Education, Evangelism, and Building and Grounds. Also included is a pastor’s report by Elden G. Bucklin, who had become pastor on Sept. 1st, lasting until July 1973. A Baptist, he had been chaplain of the Rhode Island and Vermont State Granges and grand chaplain of the NE Grand Council of United Commercial Travelers; while serving as the Federated pastor, he was grand chaplain of the Grand Lodge of Vermont Odd Fellows, and clerk of the Vt. Ecumenical Council (from spring 1976 Reformer obituary). Soon after his arrival, at some point in May 1969, the Bibles in the pews were given.

While the records don’t offer much about the next three years, Mike Henkel became pastor in July 1976, staying until late August, 1983. The church continued to be well attended; in March of 1977 the average attendance in Tuesday Church School was thirty-five. In June of that year, the suggestion was made to install the bulletin board which was placed on the church lawn in the mid 1980s, informing and inviting townspeople and passersby. By the early eighties, the church had began to host other non-church related groups and events more frequently; for example, there was a distinctly local flower show in 1984, with divisions including “Putney Mountain, the Great Meadow, Crafts, Small Town, and Brook” (pamphlet on file, PHS). This trend continued, as the relatively liberal Janet Langdon, whose background was Episcopalian as well as Congregational, became pastor in February of 1985. A bulletin from November 1987 shows a variety of events: a visiting Baptist minister, recognition of Jon Prentiss’ compilation on Baptists in Putney, a Christmas Bazaar, a community potluck, a senior luncheon—and the meetings which have brought so many people to Putney on Wednesday evenings these past two decades—Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, ACAP, and Al-Ateen. Also mentioned are a vigil for peace and justice in Brattleboro, an Oxfam day of fasting, and a PAP clinic and free breast exam. During that time, the church also sponsored a family from El Salvador, in sanctuary. Some things didn’t change much; the order of worship remained very similar to the early 1950s. Yet very early on Langdon said that “God is not a he and should not be spoken of as such”—her tenure was significant and lengthy (Reformer 6/28/99 p.1), and it is notable that the Women’s Association, having remained strong for over sixty years, fell out of existence in the post-civil rights era of the 1980s; before it did so, the women stitched the quilt which now hangs in the Town Hall, with panels of scenes from town. By the late 1990s, members were considering an end to the federation of churches, which had been the reason for the creation of the Women’s Association.

In 1997 parishoners voted to disentangle the Baptist and Methodist strands from the Congregational, and legal separation occurred; the church name officially became the United Church of Putney, and it became an “open and affirming” church as well, revising the Constitution as follows:

We believe that God’s holy spirit is within all and beyond all—a spirit in whose movement there are no barriers of color, ethnicity, class, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, age, ability, or religion.

In 1998 the Morris dancers performed at a service in honor of George Carow, a beloved member of the church and the team. Difficulties in relationships between Janet Langdon and members of the congregation and community finally led to her departure in July of 1999, and a pastoral search committee including Nancy Olsen, Jan Youga, Susan Gunther-Mohr, Jack Wallace, Matt Mills, and Becky Watson eventually landed Susan Tarolli, who became pastor in October 2001. Amid the stability of many long-time church leaders in the report (which has been pared down to the budget—$47, 629 was budgeted, and $38,020 was actually spent—and reports from the annual meeting, the minister, the deacons, the auditor, and committees including pastoral search, buildings and grounds , fiduciary, and executive), the names of Eleanor Babbitt, and the musicians Sandra Holt (organ), Bill McKim (piano), Fred Taylor (guitar), and David Wells (cello) are notable.

The church continues to extend its open invitation to the entire community, to hear Reverend Tarolli’s increasingly reknowned sermons, and to meet for worship on Sundays and Christian holidays in the indefinite future.

Thanks to the late Inez Harlow for filing documents at the historical society; to Laura Heller and Rev. Susan Tarolli for research suggestions; to Jack Wallace for review; and to Sue Mulcahy, for research, review, and considerable guidance.

References
Church records, in possession of church Clerk (Susan Gunther-Mohr, at time of writing).
Documents on file, Putney Historical Society.
Interview of Susan Mulcahy, at her residence, July 10, 2002.

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